It’s that time again! All across the country, people will be lighting up barbecues and fireworks, celebrating the independence of the United States. Given how everything was basically canceled for most of 2020, independence feels a little different this year. As families who haven’t seen each other in months are finally reuniting, they will also be looking for that one thing that has defined the pandemic in terms of entertainment: streaming options! Why not consider an option with a bit of a connection to American history, something to fit the tone of Independence Day other than, well, Independence Day? Here are nine streaming options across film and television, old and new, to consider that have direct or indirect connections to the holiday. Pick your favorite to watch after the grill has been turned off and before the fireworks light up the sky.
Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney+)
A list like this wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by the most patriotic superhero out there, Captain America himself. The first venture for Chris Evans in this franchise makes the best fit for the holiday, not only because it’s an origin story, but because director Joe Johnston nails the tone of the old-fashioned serial adventure films that were made generations ago. It’s also an anniversary, as Captain America was released in the summer of 2011. Watch it again this year and consider how far this character, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, has come in the last decade, and then plan to see the MCU return next week with the long-delayed theatrical release of Black Widow.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)
To get a complete picture of the history of this country, one shouldn’t watch only superhero movies or patriotic period pieces, right? One of the most daring and ambitious television series of all time is also about one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Underground Railroad, which premiered in May on Amazon Prime, is the fictional event of the year so far. Yes, the story of a runaway Georgian slave (Thuso Mbedu) and the man who chases her across the country (Joel Edgerton) is a tough watch, especially on a holiday weekend, but it’s also incredibly rewarding in the end. Lyrical and genuine in equal measure, Barry Jenkins’s ten-episode limited series asks viewers to consider American history in a new light, to bear witness to the scars that will never heal.
The Fast and the Furious (HBO Max)
As F9 tears up the box office — a sign that audiences are finally ready to go back to the theaters — why not return to the one that started it all two decades ago, launching arguably the most American franchise of its era? American blockbusters are known for being bigger, faster, and louder than any in the world, and those three words certainly describe the majority of the films starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and the rest of the Furious Crew. What’s funny is how tame the first film now feels in comparison to where the series would go, telling a relatively simple story about a cop going undercover in a group of drag racers. Who could have guessed the series would be going to space two decades later?
America: The Motion Picture (Netflix)
In the mood for a little Team America-esque humor this holiday? Matt Thompson of Archer fame made his directorial debut this week with this original animated feature that plays out a lot like what an eighth-grader would dream about after falling asleep in American History class. After the murder of his friend Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), George Washington (Channing Tatum) assembles a team of Patriotic Avengers to fight Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) and King James (Simon Pegg). It’s a bit inconsistent, but it’s also a historical animated movie for adults that includes a Robocop centaur, if you’re looking for that kind of thing.
Lincoln (HBO Max)
Steven Spielberg is one of film’s most underrated historians, regularly returning to true stories and giving them his artistic all, in projects like Schindler’s List, Munich, and Band of Brothers. One of his best is 2012’s Lincoln, which is much more than a mere historical biopic, presenting one of the country’s most influential men in a three-dimensional light. Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Oscar for the film, which feels like it hasn’t quite gotten the credit it deserves over the last decade. It’s a riveting piece of work that really makes history come alive.
Summer of Soul (or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu)
How about a different kind of history lesson this Independence Day? How about a film that vibrates with so much life, you’ll have to get off your couch and dance? Look no further than Questlove’s directorial debut, a concert film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that features some of the most incredible performances ever put on film, including ones by Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many more. However, this is no mere historical recording; Summer of Soul feels alive and current in ways that documentaries about half-century-old events rarely do. Questlove finds the connections to today in the artistry, passion, and, yes, the racial conflict of the era, delivering one of the best films of 2021.
Five Came Back (Netflix)
Based on Mark Harris’s excellent book of the same name, this three-part series details the experience of five directors during World War II: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. As modern masters like Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Greengrass analyze how each director’s work was forever changed by what they saw overseas during the war, the series incorporates footage they shot during the war with studies of their films and their influence. It’s a fantastic blending of film history and actual history, revealing how much the former was affected by the latter.
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Independence Day is a bit more poignant in the world of one of Apple TV’s most critically acclaimed shows. Created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), this drama imagines an alternate timeline wherein American astronauts weren’t the first to set foot on the moon, but instead, beaten in the Space Race by the Soviet Union. Amplifying tension and competition between the two superpowers, For All Mankind never loses focus on its characters, including an astronaut played by Joel Kinnaman of The Killing. It’s not the most blatantly patriotic show one could watch this holiday, but it says something about the fragility of American history and how one event has the power to change so much.
No Sudden Move (HBO Max)
Steven Soderbergh’s latest is one of the master’s best, a return to the thriller genre he does so well with some of his best actors, including Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro. The two stars play low-level criminals caught up in a job involving the auto industry in Detroit in 1954. Why watch this on a holiday? Well, other than it’s simply great, it features Soderbergh’s common dissection of power structures in this country. Sometimes it takes some shady figures working in back alleys and boardrooms to make that baseball and apple pie feel so good.