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Two cheers for the red, white, and blue

How about a July Fourth film festival for the real America?

Barbara Harris sings "It Don'Worry Me," in "Nashville."Paramount Pictures

July Fourth is when we celebrate the official narrative of America, the intertwined myths and realities that make up the story we like to tell ourselves and other countries. The Founding Fathers, the land of opportunity, the beacon of democracy, the taming of the wilderness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a character tells James Stewart in John Ford’s 1962 western classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and it’s never been clear whether Ford meant that as praise or criticism.

Perhaps both, a notion that seems more possible to entertain given how the conversation has broadened in recent years to examine what has traditionally been swept under the rug of our national lore. The recent exhuming of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre into the greater white consciousness, The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the toppling of Confederate statues — all are evidence that we’re becoming less addicted as a nation to a sanitized version of our timeline and more willing to balance it with less flattering truths.

With that in mind, how about a July Fourth film festival for the real America — its ideals of government and its feet of clay, its welcoming arms and its doors slammed shut, the people it has helped raise up and the people it has kept down for generations? The good and the bad, both seen with clarity and conscience. Here are a few interesting places to start.


Nashville (1975) Robert Altman’s kaleidoscopic portrait of the country music capital is still the most sympathetic and stinging movie about America ever made in America. The observations about fame and politics and men and women haven’t dated a day, and the ending — one star’s fall, another star’s rise — remains a gut punch.

Dustin Hoffman and Aimee Eccles in "Little Big Man." MPI/Getty Images

Little Big Man (1970) A wild western picaresque that shades into a contemplation of genocide not at all unlike what we were then doing in Vietnam, it’s a grand subversion of a national genre and its myths from director Arthur Penn. Dustin Hoffman, aging a century, is a joy. A movie to make “Dances with Wolves” look like a middle school play.


Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant."Anne Joyce/The Weinstein Company via AP

The Immigrant (1917)/The Immigrant (2013) The first is Charlie Chaplin speaking silently, with high slapstick and deep sorrow, to millions of new arrivals out there in the dark. The second is James Gray’s gorgeous drama of the exploiters and exploited in the age of Chaplin, with incandescent performances by Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix and a final shot to crater your heart.

The New World (2005) Terrence Malick’s cinematic tone poem turns the story of Pocahontas and John Smith into an epic meditation on the utopian fantasies of European colonialism and all that they miss. Smith (Colin Farrell) loves the Algonquin girl (Q’orianka Kilcher) as an idea of noble-savage purity. John Rolfe (Christian Bale) just loves her as a person. We’re still hashing out the distinctions.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in "12 Years a Slave." Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight via AP

12 Years a Slave (2013) By now there are a solid number of slave narratives on film, some dutiful, others inspired (see “The Underground Railroad”), but the 2013 best picture winner remains the one that forces audiences to unforgivingly confront the viciousness of a system this country was built on. Figures that it took a British man to direct it.

Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro in "First Cow." Allyson Riggs/A24 Films

First Cow (2020) Speaking of the American ideal, is it one for all or every man for himself? Kelly Reichardt has the gift of turning such notions into knockabout human drama, in this case two drifters at the edge of the Oregon frontier transmuting a rich man’s precious commodity — milk — into communal gold. Or primordial doughnuts. Same thing.


From left: Byron Jennings, Joseph Cross, Hal Holbrook, Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Jeremy Strong, David Costabile, in "Lincoln." David James/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox via AP

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)/Lincoln (2012)/Secret Honor (1984) Three long views of the US presidency: John Ford’s inspired Hollywood hagiography, with a dreamy Henry Fonda as Abe; Steven Spielberg’s tougher but still adoring version of the man; and Altman’s Nixonian one-man-show, with Philip Baker Hall as an unhinged late-night Tricky Dick raging against the dying of his legacy.

Bamboozled (2000)/Minstrel Man (1977) Minstrelsy — the white practice of blackface and cultural appropriation — has deep American roots and countless branches. Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” is one of his most underrated joints, an alternately hilarious and furious ride through the racist funhouse of modern pop culture. “Minstrel Man,” on YouTube, is something stranger, an earnest, awkward, and long-forgotten TV movie about black minstrels fighting to move past burnt cork and into their own.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood."Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Vantage via Reuters

There Will Be Blood (2007) In which Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis take this country’s Great Man mythos — those titans of industry who commandeered headlines while raping the land — and puts it through a grand and caustic mutation. Beware the man who wants to drink your milkshake.

Sally Field in "Norma Rae."20th Century Fox

Norma Rae (1979) Textile worker Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Oscar winner Sally Fields’ character was based, really did stand up on a factory floor table and silence her co-workers’ machines, one by one, by holding up a sign with “UNION” written on it. (And, like Norma Rae, she got fired for it.) Martin Ritt’s film is great populist moviemaking, a complex human drama about some of our most cherished ideas of fair play. And Fields is a sparkler to liven up any July Fourth film festival.