Martin Scorsese Creates a List of 38 Essential Films About American Democracy

Image by “Sieb­bi,” Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

So many of us, through­out so much of the 20th cen­tu­ry, saw the nature of Amer­i­can-style democ­ra­cy as more or less etched in stone. But the events of recent years, cer­tain­ly on the nation­al lev­el but also on the glob­al one, have thrown our assump­tions about a polit­i­cal sys­tem that once looked des­tined for uni­ver­sal­i­ty — indeed, the much-dis­cussed “end” toward which his­to­ry itself has been work­ing — into ques­tion. What­ev­er our per­son­al views, we’ve all had to remem­ber that the Unit­ed States, approach­ing a quar­ter-mil­len­ni­um of his­to­ry, remains an exper­i­men­tal coun­try, one more sub­ject to re-eval­u­a­tion and revi­sion than we might have thought.

The same holds true for the art form that has done more than any oth­er to spread visions of Amer­i­ca: the movies. Mar­tin Scors­ese sure­ly knows this, just as deeply as he knows that a full under­stand­ing of any soci­ety demands immer­sion into that soci­ety’s dreams of itself. The fact that so many of Amer­i­ca’s dreams have tak­en cin­e­mat­ic form makes Scors­ese well-placed to approach the sub­ject, giv­en that he’s dreamed a fair few of them him­self. Taxi Dri­ver, Rag­ing Bull, Good­fel­las, Gangs of New YorkThe Wolf of Wall Street: most of his best-known films tell thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can sto­ries, root­ed in not just his coun­try’s dis­tinc­tive his­to­ry but the equal­ly dis­tinc­tive pol­i­tics, soci­ety, and cul­ture that have result­ed from it.

Now, along with his non­prof­it The Film Foun­da­tion, Scors­ese pass­es his under­stand­ing of Amer­i­ca along to all of us with their cur­ricu­lum, “Por­traits of Amer­i­ca: Democ­ra­cy on Film.” It comes as part of their larg­er project “The Sto­ry of Film,” described by its offi­cial site as “an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary cur­ricu­lum intro­duc­ing stu­dents to clas­sic cin­e­ma and the cul­tur­al, his­tor­i­cal, and artis­tic sig­nif­i­cance of film.” Scors­ese and The Film Foun­da­tion offer its mate­ri­als free to schools, but stu­dents of all ages and nation­al­i­ties can learn a great deal about Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy from the pic­tures it includes, the sequence of which runs as fol­lows:

Mod­ule 1: The Immi­grant Expe­ri­ence
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: From Pen­ny Clap­trap to Movie Palaces—the First Three Decades
Chap­ter 1: “The Immi­grant” (1917, d. Char­lie Chap­lin)
Chap­ter 2: “The God­fa­ther, Part II” (1974, d. Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la)
Chap­ter 3: “Amer­i­ca, Amer­i­ca” (1963, d. Elia Kazan)
Chap­ter 4: “El Norte” (1983, d. Gre­go­ry Nava)
Chap­ter 5: “The Name­sake” (2006, d. Mira Nair)

Mod­ule 2: The Amer­i­can Labor­er
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: The Com­mon Good
Chap­ter 1: “Black Fury” (1935, d. Michael Cur­tiz)
Chap­ter 2: “Har­lan Coun­ty U.S.A.” (1976, d. Bar­bara Kop­ple)
Chap­ter 3: “At the Riv­er I Stand” (1993, d. David Apple­by, Alli­son Gra­ham and Steven Ross)
Chap­ter 4: “Salt of the Earth” (1954, d. Her­bert J. Biber­man)
Chap­ter 5: “Nor­ma Rae” (1979, d. Mar­tin Ritt)

Mod­ule 3: Civ­il Rights
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: The Cam­era as Wit­ness
Chap­ter 1: King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Mem­phis (1970, con­ceived & cre­at­ed by
Ely Lan­dau; guest appear­ances filmed by Sid­ney Lumet and Joseph L.
Chap­ter 2: “Intrud­er in the Dust” (1949, d. Clarence Brown)
Chap­ter 3: “The Times of Har­vey Milk” (1984, d. Robert Epstein)
Chap­ter 4: “Smoke Sig­nals” (1998, d. Chris Eyre)

Mod­ule 4: The Amer­i­can Woman
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: Ways of See­ing Women
Chap­ter 1: Through a Woman’s Lens: Direc­tors Lois Weber (focus­ing on “Sus­pense,” 1913 and
“Where Are My Chil­dren,” 1916) and Dorothy Arzn­er (“Dance, Girl, Dance,” 1940)
Chap­ter 2: “Imi­ta­tion of Life” (1934, d. John M. Stahl)
Chap­ter 3: “Woman of the Year” (1942, d. George Stevens)
Chap­ter 4: “Alien” (1979, d. Rid­ley Scott)
Chap­ter 5: “The Age of Inno­cence” (1993, d. Mar­tin Scors­ese)

Mod­ule 5: Politi­cians and Dem­a­gogues
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: Checks and Bal­ances
Chap­ter 1: “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933, d. Gre­go­ry La Cava)
Chap­ter 2: “A Lion is in the Streets” (1953, d. Raoul Walsh)
Chap­ter 3: “Advise and Con­sent” (1962, d. Otto Pre­minger)
Chap­ter 4: “A Face in the Crowd” (1957, d. Elia Kazan)

Mod­ule 6: Sol­diers and Patri­ots
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: Movies and Home­front Morale
Chap­ter 1: “Sergeant York (1941, d. Howard Hawks)
Chap­ter 2: Pri­vate Snafu’s Pri­vate War—three Sna­fu Shorts from WWII
Chap­ter 3: “Three Came Home” (1950, d. Jean Neg­ule­sco)
Chap­ter 4: “Glo­ry” (1989, Edward Zwick)
Chap­ter 5: “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan” (1998, d. Steven Spiel­berg)

Mod­ule 7: The Press
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: Degrees of Truth
Chap­ter 1: “Meet John Doe” (1941, d. Frank Capra)
Chap­ter 2: “All the President’s Men” (1976, d. Alan J. Paku­la)
Chap­ter 3: “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, d. George Clooney)
Chap­ter 4: “An Incon­ve­nient Truth” (2006, d. Davis Guggen­heim)
Chap­ter 5: “Ace in the Hole” (1951, d. Bil­ly Wilder)

Mod­ule 8: The Auteurs
Intro­duc­to­ry Les­son: Film as an Art Form
Chap­ter 1: “Mod­ern Times” (1936, Char­lie Chap­lin)
Chap­ter 2: “The Grapes of Wrath”(1940, d. John Ford)
Chap­ter 3: “Cit­i­zen Kane” (1941, d. Orson Welles)
Chap­ter 4: “An Amer­i­can in Paris” (1951, d. Vin­cente Min­nel­li)
Chap­ter 5: “The Avi­a­tor” (2004, d. Mar­tin Scors­ese)

“Divi­sion, con­flict and anger seem to be defin­ing this moment in cul­ture,” says Scors­ese, quot­ed in Film Jour­nal Inter­na­tion­al arti­cle about the cur­ricu­lum. “I learned a lot about cit­i­zen­ship and Amer­i­can ideals from the movies I saw. Movies that look square­ly at the strug­gles, vio­lent dis­agree­ments and the tragedies in his­to­ry, not to men­tion hypocrisies, false promis­es. But they also embody the best in Amer­i­ca, our great hopes and ideals.” Few could watch all 38 of the films on his cur­ricu­lum with­out feel­ing that the exper­i­ments of democ­ra­cy and cin­e­ma are still on to some­thing – and hold out the promise of more pos­si­bil­i­ties than we’d imag­ined before.

via Indiewire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Scors­ese to Teach His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Mar­tin Scors­ese on How “Diver­si­ty Guar­an­tees Our Cul­tur­al Sur­vival,” in Film and Every­thing Else

Mar­tin Scors­ese Makes a List of 85 Films Every Aspir­ing Film­mak­er Needs to See

Alex­is De Tocqueville’s Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Most Insight­ful Study of Amer­i­can Democ­ra­cy

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (7)
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  • LHolt says:

    For the courts:

    Anato­my of a Mur­der

    Twelve Angry Men

  • Gerald says:

    The Amer­i­can sys­tem is an exper­i­ment — one found­ed on the prin­ci­ple of indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty. The Founders’ vision and cre­ation was nev­er etched in stone and has been, at least since the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, under creep­ing assault by those in favor of a sys­tem that entrusts ever more pow­er to the Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. I am not so sure I see any­thing all that unique about the “events of recent years”.

  • Bob says:

    Aval­on seems to be a pret­ty big miss

  • Rick says:

    The Founders “vision” was the first assault on lib­er­ty, accord­ing to Lysander Spoon­ers book No Trea­son

  • Honir says:

    “Gabriel Over the White House,” pro­duced by William Ran­dolph Hearst, was his visu­al man­i­festo on why Amer­i­ca need­ed author­i­tar­i­an dem­a­gogue like Trump—despite Wal­ter Hus­ton, it’s a hor­ri­ble movie but instruc­tive and worth see­ing to get in the heads of such nuts. Also, it is cer­tain Her­man Mankiewicz knew all about this movie when writ­ing “Cit­i­zen Kane” and that prob­a­bly helped.

    But why on earth Scors­ese picked Jim­my Cagney’s scenery chew­ing per­for­mance & sixth grade plot­ting of “Lion in the Streets” over “All the King’s Men” (giv­en that both films are essen­tial­ly about Huey Long) is beyond me. I mean I think this a great & thought pro­vok­ing list but seri­ous­ly???

  • John says:

    Amer­i­ca and democ­ra­cy a con­tra­dic­tion in ter­m’s.

  • hildegard von bingo says:

    Scors­ese’s quite excit­ing isn’t he?

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