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Extra Credit

The 50 Best Historical and Educational Films Streaming Now

Great true stories, biopics, and family movies available online and streaming to bring into your home classroom

When you’re streaming movies at home, it can be tempting to let your eyes glaze over as you watch sitcom reruns or the same animated classics. But streaming platforms include as many classics and educational films as they do popcorn fare. You just have to know where to look.

Here are 50 of the best true stories, biopics, and historical dramas available on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services, presented in alphabetical order. All of us can afford to learn something new with the time we’ve been given during the coronavirus pandemic. And if you’re a student or are quarantining with students, watching a significant film to learn a bit more about our world is an intellectual investment. But don’t worry—none of the movies on the list are dry. (Streaming services can drop titles at the end of each month, so it’s possible the availability of these movies will shift over time.)

black and white still from the movie all the president's men

Warner Bros. Inc./Getty Images

All the President’s Men

This 1976 political thriller from director Alan J. Pakula (Sophie’s Choice, Klute) casts Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post reporters who investigated the Watergate scandal. Their articles, of course, eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Rent on Amazon)


This historical film following Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his artistic rival Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar and is considered by the American Film Institute and United States Film Registry to be one of the greatest movies ever made. From an educational standpoint, Miloš Forman’s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) film is a deep dive into the history of opera and classical music and an exploration into what defines a genius. (Rent on Amazon)


Steven Spielberg directed this 1997 historical drama depicting the events that unfolded on the slave ship Amistad in 1839. African men sold into slavery from the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone managed to overthrow their captors, and they were tried in a Supreme Court case in 1841. Djimon Hounsou stars as Cinque, a leader of the rebellion, alongside Anthony Hopkins as congressman and former President John Quincy Adams. (Stream on Hulu)

Apollo 13

Tom Hanks stars in Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission, which would have ended in a horrific disaster had the spacecraft’s crew not been able to work with NASA scientists on Earth to engineer an insane solution to get the crew home. (Stream on Hulu)


Much like the historical drama Girl With a Pearl Earring (also a good educational home-watch!), the 2013 film Belle is a slightly editorialized dramatization of a classic painting. In this case, the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a girl of mixed race who grew up on the estate of her great uncle William Murray, the Lord Chief Justice of England in 1779. The film, written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante, dramatizes the Zong massacre of 1781 and the path to abolition. (Rent on Amazon)

The Best Years of Our Lives

William Wyler’s 1946 post-World War II melodrama, which won a Best Picture Oscar, isn’t a true story, but it is one of the first films devoted to the lives of returning American servicemen, who came back from the war with physical wounds and psychological conditions that challenged them, their families, and their communities. The film’s depiction of PTSD was way ahead of its time. (Rent on Amazon)


This 2005 drama features an unforgettable performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing author Truman Capote. The film illuminates several subjects in literature and American history, ranging from Capote’s development of the now-ubiquitous “non-fiction novel” subgenre with his book In Cold Blood to his complex (and competitive!) partnership with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). (Free on YouTube)

Dallas Buyers Club

This 2013 drama tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an AIDS patient who smuggled medication into Texas and illegally distributed it to those suffering from the disease. (Stream on Netflix)

The Death of Stalin

As far as films on this list go, writer-director Armando Iannucci’s 2017 black comedy probably takes the most liberties with its true story, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more cutting (and interesting!) depiction of Soviet Russia in the 1950s. (Stream on Netflix)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This 2007 French biographical film directed by Julian Schnabel follows the life of Elle journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome following a massive stroke in 1995. (Stream on HBO Now)

still from the movie dunkirk

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


Director Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war epic tells the true story of the British evacuation of troops from the French beach town of Dunkirk in the early days of World War II, a civilian-led event that saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers. (Rent on Amazon)

The Elephant Man

The real “elephant man”—a 19th century British man who had severe physical disabilities—was named Joseph Merrick, but director David Lynch’s masterpiece refers to him as John Merrick. The significant departures from Merrick’s true story end there. The film was both a critical and commercial success upon its release in 1980, and it cemented Merrick as a permanent fixture in pop culture. Most people have heard someone in their lives quote the film at some point: “I am not an animal!” Yep, comes from this movie. (Rent on Amazon)

Empire of the Sun

Director Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama features a young Christian Bale as J. G. Ballard, who was held as a prisoner of war when he was a boy by Japanese forces. The film is beautifully shot, but most importantly it’s a look at the war from a POV American audiences don’t often seea child’s. (Ballard would grow up to become an acclaimed novelist, and the movie is based on his memoir.) (Stream on Amazon Prime Video)

Erin Brockovich

Director Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film dramatizes the legal case of Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric, in which a then-untrained lawyer named Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) sued the gas company for poisoning the drinking water of Hinkley, California. Roberts gives one of the best performances of her career, and it earned her the Oscar for Best Actress. (Stream on Hulu)

First Man

A rare biography of an American cultural figure that doesn’t sugarcoat things, director Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film reimagines the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong as a relentless, near-stoic drive off our planet. Portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is portrayed as a man meant for one thing only: space exploration. (Stream on Hulu)

still from the movie 42

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


A pre-Wakandan Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in MLB. This film will satisfy history nuts and sports fans alike—especially during this period where there’s nary a single live game to watch. (Rent on Amazon)


Salma Hayek plays surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose contributions to Latinx culture and feminist discourse have been sadly overshadowed in modern pop culture by the Warholian treatment of her face. You’ve almost definitely seen a tote bag or mug with Kahlo’s face on it, but until you’ve seen the film it’s difficult to understand how much torment she fought through to get her work into the world. (Rent on Amazon)


Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman star as fictional members of the real 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the few African American units in the American Civil War. (Free on Crackle)

Good Night, and Good Luck.

George Clooney directed this 2005 black-and-white drama, which is one of the most arresting films to explore McCarthyism—especially because it deals with real events. David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow, the CBS journalist who was accused by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953 of having ties to Communists. McCarthy was slinging a lot of such accusations at the time, but he met his match in Murrow, who had as much to do with ending the senator’s reign of suspicion and hysteria as anyone. (Rent on Amazon)

The Grapes of Wrath

If the murmurings about a second Great Depression have begun to vex you and your family, consider watching the quintessential film about the most severe economic downturn the United States has ever weathered. Director John Ford’s black-and-white 1940 stunner, based on John Steinbeck’s indelible novel, is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, and its excellence is most obvious whenever star Henry Fonda is onscreen. (Rent on Amazon)

Hidden Figures

Boasting a talent-stacked trio of lead actresses (Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson), this early-1960s period drama tells the story of three African American “human computers”—women who worked at NASA and were instrumental to the launch of the Friendship 7 and other spacecraft that led to landing a man on the moon. (Stream on Hulu)

Hotel Rwanda

Don Cheadle gives a career-defining performance as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who protected hundreds of Tutsi Rwandans during the Hutu-led genocide of 1994. The film is a horrifying true-life story, made only more disturbing by the depiction of the near-useless United Nations peacekeepers and apparent apathy of Western countries. (Stream on Hulu)

The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the genius British cryptanalyst who cracked the apparently uncrackable Nazi intelligence code during World War II. The 2014 film takes some artistic license with Turing’s life, though it won accolades from the Human Rights Campaign for its frank portrayal of Turing’s homosexuality, which turned the war hero into a criminal in postwar England. (Stream on Hulu)

Ip Man

This Hong Kong biographical drama follows the life of Ip Man, the 1930s Wing Chun grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee. (Stream on Netflix)

still from the movie jackie

Pablo Larrain/Why Not Productions


Natalie Portman won critical acclaim for her turn in this 2016 biographical drama following Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of husband President John F. Kennedy in 1963. (Rent on Amazon)

The Last King of Scotland

Though the relationship between Ugandan leader Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and a Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) is fictional, it is Whitaker’s performance as the violent, erratic, and very real General Amin that puts this film on our list. (Stream on Hulu)

David James/©2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


Director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner focus on a very narrow part of the 16th president’s life—the fight over the passage of the 13th Amendment, which emancipated America’s slaves and banned slavery forever—but it feels like the definitive biopic of Abraham Lincoln. (It’s based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals.) Yes, history nuts interested in the Civil War will get what they’re looking for, but it’s Sally Field’s gut-wrenching performance as a grieving Mary Todd Lincoln that’ll ring in your mind for days after you watch. (Rent on Amazon)


This Australian drama stars Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley, a writer adopted out of poverty by Australian parents in the 1980s. Brierley travels back to India, fighting to find his birth parents and discovering the differences between India’s socioeconomic structure and the culture he grew up with. (Free on Vudu; Rent on Amazon)


This romantic drama depicts the American couple behind the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which overrode state laws banning interracial marriage. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga pull at viewers’ heartstrings as Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman who fell in love after knowing each other from childhood. (Stream on Hulu or HBO Now)

Malcolm X

Denzel Washington delivers a towering performance, in one of director Spike Lee’s best films, portraying the American Muslim leader and civil rights activist Malcolm X from childhood to his assassination in 1965. This film, which features cameos from black cultural leaders like Bobby Seale and Rev. Al Sharpton, is preserved in the National Film Registry and is based on Malcolm’s autobiography, which was completed by Alex Haley (Roots) and published after his death. (Stream on Netflix)

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots follows the tense long-distance relationship that unfolded between Mary, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan), and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Ronan and Robbie simply shine. It's also the rare period drama that casts actors of color in other roles that would otherwise occupied by white performers. (Stream on Hulu or HBO Now)


Director Gus Van Sant’s emotive and delicate biography of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay elected politician in California, covers, among other subjects, police raids of gay bars in cities across America. It’s one of the most detailed stories about gay American history committed to film. (Stream on Hulu)

The Motorcycle Diaries

This 2004 biopic follows Che Guevara (Gael García Bernal) as a young man in 1952, when he rode a motorcycle across South America with best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). We see the young Guevara become consumed with the lives of rural Indigenous people around the continent. As his understanding of Latinx identity evolves, he’s slowly radicalized by the dream of a better world. (Rent on Amazon)

still from the movie mudbound

Steve Dietl/Netflix


Director Dee Rees’ 2017 film doesn’t adapt a true story. In fact, it’s based on a 2008 novel of the same title, but it’s still a realistic portrayal of racial tensions and post-war strife in 1950s Mississippi. Two young veterans, one black and one white, return home to a rural village that doesn’t see them as equals, though they were trained in combat to work together. (Stream on Netflix)

My Left Foot

A quintessentially Irish story, My Left Foot is the biography of Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis), a painter born with cerebral palsy into an impoverished family of 15. Illuminating in several ways, the film explores the complex journey of a profoundly gifted and physically challenged man while also depicting the lives of working-class Irish people. (Stream on HBO Now)

The New World

This 2005 Terrence Malick film is a way better watch than Disney’s Pocahontas. Though the latter admittedly has a better soundtrack, it takes too many artistic liberties with the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in order to count as educational. The New World, however, stars Colin Farrell and then-newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher as the ill-fated historical couple. (Free on Vudu)

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

This 2017 film follows the political activism of queer rights group ACT UP Paris in the 1990s. While telling the stories of young people frightened into hiding by the spread of HIV, the film also dramatizes the cultural shift in Pride parades, which became more celebratory in the years leading up to the new millennium. (Stream on Hulu)

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Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

The Post

Director Steven Spielberg’s 2017 historical drama is another visit into the Washington Post newsroom, this time during the First Amendment crisis over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. (The documents, illicitly copied by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, tracked the history of the Vietnam War from 19451967 and showed the government knew it was an unwinnable conflict.) And rather than focusing on reporters, The Post follows legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and equally legendary publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Oddly enough, this is the first time the two megastars appeared on screen together. (Rent on Amazon)

The Pianist

Adrien Brody plays Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman in director Roman Polanski’s celebrated World War II drama. The critically acclaimed 2002 film follows Szpilman as he’s separated from his family in the Warsaw ghetto and then tries to evade capture by ruthless Nazi death squads. The film includes one of the most powerful moments in 21st-century cinema: a long, uninterrupted shot of Szpilman, who ventures out of hiding for the first time, weeping as he walks alone through the streets of a decimated Warsaw. (Stream on Netflix)

Schindler’s List

Director Steven Spielberg’s landmark drama tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who saved more than a thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi genocide. Spielberg’s film is unrelenting and powerful, thanks in part to it being shot in black-and-white and filmed as if it were a documentary.

50 movies selma

Atsushi Nishijima/©2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


Ava DuVernay’s 2014 civil rights drama skyrocketed the director to fame. Given the film’s confident and delicate framing of the Selma to Montgomery marches by African Americans demanding the right to vote, it’s easy to see why. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other social justice groups released an educational guide for anyone streaming at home. (Rent on Amazon)

Seven Samurai

Considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, 1954’s Seven Samurai was cowritten, edited, and directed by Japanese visionary Akira Kurosawa. The drama is set in Japan’s Sengoku period and dramatizes the lives of rōnin, or samurai with no masters. (It has also inspired numerous other classics, from the western The Magnificent Seven to a little-known arthouse fantasy called Star Wars.) (Rent on Amazon)

Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures


Director Martin Scorsese spent decades trying to make this historical epic, an adaptation of a novel by Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō. It follows Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson as 17th century Jesuit missionaries in Japan as they find their faiths (and fates) challenged by a society that doesn’t look kindly on their religion. (Free on Crackle)

The Social Network

Director David Fincher’s 2010 film dramatizing Mark Zuckerberg’s cofounding of Facebook has become increasingly relevant in the decade since its release. The film opens on a young, lonely Zuck (Jesse Eisenberg) at Harvard as he develops the digital prototype that would soon balloon into the social media behemoth and global phenomenon at the center of fraught debates regarding privacy, propaganda, and foreign nations tampering with American elections. (Stream on Netflix)


A must-watch for any aspiring journalist, this 2015 drama won Best Picture for its tense portrayal of the Boston Globe’s venerated Spotlight investigative reporting team, played here by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams, among others. The Spotlight team published a series of stories on child abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church; their coverage of this scandal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and continue to resonate nearly two decades later. (Rent on Amazon)

The Straight Story

This David Lynch-directed film is a bizarrely inspirational true story about resilience. In 1994, a farmer named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for Best Actor) drove from Iowa to Wisconsin on a 5-mph max tractor, just to visit his brother. (Rent on Amazon; stream on Disney+)

The Theory of Everything

A romanticized but still revelatory film about Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), whom he met at University of Cambridge before the onset of ALS, which took almost all of the physicist’s motor function. (Stream on Netflix)

To Sir, With Love

Sidney Poitier stars as E. R. Braithwaite, a schoolteacher in the East End of London, a rough neighborhood producing teenage students who are drawn into gang warfare, drug use, and dropping out. The film, which made ripples upon its release in the late 1960s, is based on Braithwaite’s autobiography. (Rent on Amazon)


A biography about the grandfather of modern fantasy that doesn’t actually delve into high fantasy, this film follows J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) through his impoverished childhood, traumatic experiences in World War I, and the study of linguistics that led to writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But it’s not just a story for Middle Earth fans; Tolkien deeply explores privilege and trauma in a way that feels universal. (Stream on Hulu or HBO Now)

12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen’s highly celebrated 2013 film dramatizes the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a New Yorker and African American man who was kidnapped by con men in 1841, transported across the Mason-Dixon line, and forced in slavery in Louisiana. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, opposite Lupita Nyong’o in her breakout (and Oscar-winning) role as Patsey, another enslaved American living on the plantation. (Rent on Amazon)