If you grew up in the United States, you probably learned American history. Heck, even if you didn’t grow up in the U.S., you probably learned American history. Colonialism, revolutions, wars, slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, scientific innovation, etc.—a lot of stuff happened that we know about. And while we keep making movies about WWII and musicals about the American Revolution, there are a ton of stories in American history that are ripe for adaptation. Here we humbly suggest six stories that depict people and places in the past that we would want to see on the big screen.
1. THE GI WHO BECAME A TRANSGENDER CELEBRITY
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While we all know of Caitlyn Jenner, Christine Jorgensen was actually the first American trans woman who was widely known for having sex reassignment surgery. After a brief stint in the Army in 1945, she learned about and obtained special permission to get the surgery in Denmark in 1951. Her return to the U.S. in the early 1950s was her last stop when it came to her surgeries, which led to a public story about her in the New York Daily News: “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Bombshell.” She wrote about her life and became a prominent trans figure, going on the radio, talk shows, and touring college campuses to talk about her life as a trans woman. She was an actress and nightclub singer, known for her wit. Just months before her death in 1989, Jorgensen said that she had given the sexual revolution a "good swift kick in the pants.”
There’s already been an indie movie made about Jorgensen (and Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda blatantly tried to exploit Jorgensen's story), but we’d love a fun reboot where we got to spend more time on her winning personality.
2. THE WAR HERO-TURNED-PRESIDENT WHO WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
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was undoubtedly one of our most badass presidents. He was a sickly kid with asthma, but he worked toward becoming a naturalist, historian, and politician. He was also a war hero and a big proponent of war. Despite this, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work regarding the Portsmouth Treaty, where he invited delegations from Japan and Russia to solve the Russo-Japanese war through diplomacy. Similar to the movie Lincoln, why not do a long, extended look at the Portsmouth Peace Conference?
Not to say that this was Roosevelt’s only accomplishment. After his presidency, he also traveled Africa doing research for the Smithsonian, killing or capturing over 10,000 animals to send back alongside his writings. He also traveled the Amazon basin and, while campaigning for the 1912 presidency, survived an assassination attempt. (He kept giving his speech even when he was shot, and the bullet stayed in his chest for the rest of his life.)
3. AN AUSTRIAN PHYSICIST IN CALIFORNIA
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We could all benefit from an outsider’s perspective, and there are few people wittier than Ludwig Boltzmann to give us that. An Austrian physicist’s travelogue of his time at the University of California in Berkeley in 1905 might seem random, but it’s always the smaller stories that are the most fun to adapt and watch. History can seem so distant and vast, but the details Boltzmann provides—of the people he met, the food he ate, and the beautiful imagery he saw—would provide a sumptuous and engrossing slice-of-life history. Plus, he’s a physicist, widely known to be the most charismatic of the scientists. (Just look at Albert Einstein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Richard Feynman.)
Boltzmann’s life certainly wasn’t a completely happy one (he committed suicide the next year and some historians believe he might’ve been bipolar), but he was a smart, complex person with the kind of witty observations that can make the past come to life.
4. THE FIRST NON-NATIVE AMERICAN NEW YORKER
Unfortunately, the beginning stages of America are a bit hazy in our U.S. history education. Oh sure, we know all about the Revolution, but what about before that? Many kids' educations are focused primarily on how the Native Americans in their respective state lived, then abruptly switched to the various colonies that struggled (like Roanoke and Jamestown) until one finally stuck.
But Juan Rodriguez’s story is different. Having come to America from what is now the Dominican Republic to what is now Manhattan on a Dutch ship in 1613, when the rest of the crew began preparing to return to Europe, Rodriguez decided to stay, becoming the first non-Native American to live independently in Manhattan for a prolonged period of time. (He was also the first Latino and the first man “with African blood” to arrive in Manhattan.) What was his life like? Why did he decide to stay? What did he think of this new country? A movie could explore all that and more.
5. THE INVISIBLE MEN AND WOMEN BEHIND THE REVOLUTION
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Speaking of the Revolution: If you don’t know that story, we recommend listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. Hamilton is revolutionary in how it casts people of color as the Founding Fathers, turning the stories of revolution and change into modern, fresh ideas. But what about the actual people of color involved in the Revolution? The slaves, yes, but also the free black men and women, the immigrants (Rodriguez may have been the first Latino, but the second wouldn’t have been far behind), and the women who so often get pushed aside during the Revolution. Let’s hear about Sybil Ludington, who took a midnight ride like Paul Revere’s—except that she was 16 years old at the time, and rode twice as far.
What about the slave/spy James Armistead Lafayette, who took his friend’s name after the marquis petitioned to have him freed? What about Governor and General Bernardo de Gálvez, who organized a militia of Native Americans, freed African Americans, and his own Spanish soldiers to fight off the British? A movie that focused on these people with only glancing cameos of the Founding Fathers could be a thrilling change-up to the usual historical rendition of the Revolution.
6. THE GREAT FLU EPIDEMIC OF 1918
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You’d think with all these plague movies and TV shows, the 1918 Spanish Flu (so called because the first papers to write about it were in Spain, as censors had quieted other European papers) would be up for a movie adaptation. But nothing seems to be forthcoming, which is a shame, because when it comes to real-life terrifying epidemics, the 1918 Flu is horrifying. It was so terrible it dwarfed the last year of the war, and caused a lot more deaths—up to 40 percent of the world’s population contracted the flu. Maybe it’s because, even though scientists have dug up the Alaskan graves of some of the dead and sequenced the virus’ RNA, they still don’t know what caused it. Forget an epidemic tale, this is a full-on horror story. (Especially when you hear about what happened to someone when they got the flu, which we hesitate to detail here). Worst of all: It was a horror story that everyone in the world was experiencing.