4 movie ideas
Clockwise from top left: William Kidd during his trial; 1951 Amos 'n' Andy publicity still; 1972 protest at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.; Japanese-Americans bound for Manzanar in 1942 Clockwise from top left: Universal Images Group / Getty Images; FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images; Len Owens—Keystone / Getty Images; Buyenlarge / Getty Images

13 True Stories That Would Make Oscar-Worthy Movies

Feb 24, 2017

Though only a couple of the movies up for the Best Picture prize at this Sunday's Academy Awards are based on a true story from history, real events have long been fodder for Oscar-friendly films.

With that in mind, TIME asked a variety of historians to weigh in on one question: what's a real episode from history that you think would make an Oscar-worthy feature film?

Here are 13 answers they submitted by phone and email, spanning the centuries and the globe, to get you in the spirit for Oscars weekend:

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A Populist Biopic

I think a great biopic would be of Tom Watson, based on C. Vann Woodward’s 1936 classic biography. Watson began as a fire-breathing egalitarian Populist in Georgia in the 1890s, talking before racially integrated audiences about how the poor white man and the poor black man were “in the same ditch.” He portrayed himself as the enemy of the railroads and bankers. He rode that style to the U.S. House (where he helped create Rural Free Delivery) and then the Senate. Along the way, he becomes an arch-conservative, attacking immigrants, Jews and Catholics. He was also an editor who helped stoke the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915, a young Jewish factory superintendent accused of killing 13 year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta. Watson seems to have joined the crusade against Frank because a rival editor defended the accused. The case became one of the most notorious acts of anti-Semiitism in American history. Watson’s role marked the culmination of his transformation from advocate of the oppressed to nasty demagogue.

I picture Matthew McConaughey, despite the Free State of Jones’ disappointing box-office.

Edward L. Ayers, professor and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond, Pulitzer finalist for The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, and co-host of BackStory with the American History Guys

Complicated Holocaust Heroism

I suggest a feature film about Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyi, head of the Greek-Catholic Church with his seat in the city of Lviv during the Holocaust. He initiated and led a rescue operation that saved at least dozens of lives.

This movie should show him as what he was: an extraordinarily brave and fundamentally decent as well as complicated and fallible character. Before the war, he showed great rectitude in publicly condemning the terrorist violence of Ukrainian nationalists; he proved his fortitude again when Lviv and Western Ukraine came under a brutal Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941, and he would ultimately come to show great courage and humanism during the subsequent Nazi occupation of 1941 to ’44. This was all the harder because parts of his flock were ready to assist in German violence against Jews, profit from it, or welcome its results. It took Sheptytskyi some time to realize the full evil of Nazism, which he came to call “diabolical.” Then he engaged in rescue and some, albeit veiled, protest – as all too many, including in various Churches, never did. Before the war, while always open to respectful interaction with Jews, he was, at the same time, not entirely free of traditional antisemitic stereotypes. During the war, before and even while rescuing Jewish victims, he was still ready for some cooperation with the Germans. In sum, Sheptytskyi and his background could be the basis for a fascinating movie that explores the duty to resist authoritarian inhumanity and the illusions of national egotism, the difficulties of resistance and solidarity, the moral pitfalls of collaboration, and the tragic fate of Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

Tarik Cyril Amar, associate professor of history at Columbia University

An Ancient Journey

I have always been fascinated by the story of Abd al-Rahman I, the last heir of the Umayyad dynasty. He was a young man when his dynasty, based in Syria, was overthrown by the Abbasids (in 750 CE). As was the common practice, the Abbasids sought to execute the entire ruling family. But Abd al-Rahman escaped, along with a few close family members. Unbelievably, he made the harrowing journey from Damascus all the way to present-day Spain. Not only that, he managed once he got there to gather enough support to re-establish himself: He became the first ruler of the Spanish Umayyads, who are none other than the founding family of Andalusia — that "Golden Age" of Western Islam in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived for an extended period of Convivencia.

It would be a great movie because first, the story is just unbelievable. Second, you have a clear heroic protagonist who is victorious in the end. Third, he literally changes history, inaugurating one of the most intellectually and culturally rich periods in history. Fourth, the historical period is critical in the development of classical Islamic civilization. The Abbasid Revolution is an amazing story and would be central to the plot set-up. There are interesting parallels to the populist rise of Trump in it. Fifth, the opportunities for a period piece are just so rich: the costumes, the music, the important historical figures alive and kicking at that time, the geographic expanse (from Damascus to Spain!). Sixth, his life is very well documented, and would provide a storehouse of info for the screenwriter and director to use.

—Hina Azam, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and 2016 winner of the James Henry Breasted Prize from the American Historical Association

“The Enemy Within”

At the beginning of August 1914, war erupted into the lives of millions of families across Europe. In France, all foreigners, regardless of nationality, were allowed to leave the country in the first 24 hours following the beginning of mobilization. Afterward they would be registered, arrested and sent to prisoners camps. The Paris police recorded dozens of suicides. These were mainly men who feared being deported and forced to fight in the German army. Fights broke out in the streets of Paris, many German stores were destroyed, and several Germans escaped lynching through the timely intervention of the police. This wave of anti-German violence also originated with the fear of spies. One rumor persisted above all others: that of German agents suspected of traveling through France distributing poisoned candy to French children. Rumor had it that the Maggi dairies had been distributing poisoned milk to children, leading to the destruction of dozens of Maggi stores in Paris. The first few weeks of World War I — a time of rumors, fears and collective violence — could make a great based-on-true-story movie, one with significant bearing on the present, as paranoia once again seems to cloud all reason and presage the stigmatization of an entire group of people.

—Bruno Cabanes, Professor of Modern Military History at The Ohio State University and 2016 winner of the Paul Birdsall Prize from the American Historical Association.

A Famous Fugitive

I must say, that given the very recent publication of my book Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, I can think of no better true story to prompt the next Oscar-worthy movie. Ona Judge was a 22-year-old slave who fled from the most powerful slave-holding couple in the nation: George and Martha Washington. It would be a film that featured a fugitive who found allies — both black and white — who helped her remain free from the Washingtons' clutches. It would also feature a president who broke the law to try and recapture his family's human property and enacted a manhunt that would last until his death.

—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, 2016 recipient of the Lorraine A. Williams Leadership Award from the Association of Black Women Historians and Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware

A Daring Escape From Slavery

In my book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, there’s a passage about a group off fugitive slaves that I think would make an exciting movie. The longest entry in the Record of Fugitives — after Harriet Tubman’s exploits — describes the dramatic escape of 25-year-old Frank Wanzer, his fiancée Emily Foster and a married couple, Barnaby and Mary Elizabeth Grigby.

The group departed on Christmas Eve 1855 on horse and carriage, in very severe weather. At one point they got lost in Maryland and stopped at a mill to ask for directions to the road to Pennsylvania. Here’s how I described what happened next in my book: "The miller realized they were fugitive slaves, and the party soon found itself surrounded by seven white men on horseback, who 'demanded of them to give account of themselves.' The fugitives, however, including the women, were heavily armed; when they brandished knives and double-barreled pistols, their pursuers decided not to ‘meddle' with them. "

They reached Philadelphia on Jan. 16, 1856, and made it to New York two days later. Frank and Emily got married in Syracuse, and then they all went on to Toronto. But Wanzer, determined to return to Virginia to help more escape, took the train from Toronto to Columbia, Penn., and then walked the rest of the way. Out of the dozen slaves that agreed to leave with him, only three showed up: his sister, her husband, and another man. They eventually made it to Canada.

—Eric Foner, Professor of History at Columbia University and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Civil Rights and Comedy

Imagine a feature film based on an historical episode from the early TV era: the wars within the black community over Amos 'n' Andy in the early '50s. It's 1951. CBS decides to bring [the radio show] Amos 'n' Andy to primetime television. Four veterans of the Chitlin' Circuit are cast in the lead roles (Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams, Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade). They've spent their lives on the sidelines; now, they've grabbed hold of the gold ring. Fame and fortune. A show that's wildly popular among ordinary Americans. But at their very moment of triumph — as stars of a show that's hugely popular among both blacks and whites — they're caught in the riptides of history. Officials at the major civil rights organizations, notably the NAACP, have decided that, no matter how funny they think it is in private, Amos 'n' Andy must die. At CBS, there's an executive, the achingly sincere Sig Mickelson, trying to negotiate with the likes of Walter White himself, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP. Activists offer various absurd proposals to "fix" the show. What if the actors gathered around a table, at the end, and bantered to each other in Proper English? What if a clever one-minute jingle promoting "good intergroup relations" accompanied the broadcast? In the wake of the controversy, two seasons in, the show was discontinued. Although it was syndicated for many years (I even watched it in syndication as late as 1965), most of the principals had no real careers thereafter.

Instead of your usual civil-rights story of good versus evil, then, we've got a clash of two goods, two dreams. A victory that was also a defeat. So this isn't just Good Night, and Good Luck meets Kings of Comedy. It's a story about comedy that has to be funny itself, but there's moral and emotional richness. It's about the birth of modern black comedy. And, of course, it presages all the later debates over hip hop and the like, debates between the Uplifters and the Transgressors. A film on this subject that allowed itself a little distance from the old movement bromides, and gave the devil — the devil in all of us — his due could have real power and resonance.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

The Surprising Pirate Tale

Pirates have provided blockbuster gold since the 1920s, but the actual pirates of the “Golden Age” (1570s-1730s) were far more complicated and nuanced, and frankly more interesting, than the way Hollywood has represented them on film. More importantly, historians have proved that some of the most iconic “pirates” — like Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and William Kidd — were not technically pirates at all. Of the three, Captain Kidd presents the most obvious opportunity for a reboot. Kidd was a privateer in the Caribbean during the 1680s, who became a respected member of the New York City gentry with a wife, kids and a pew in Trinity Church.

During an upsurge of English piracy in the Indian Ocean, William Kidd obtained a bizarre commission from some of the most important members of England’s aristocracy (including King William III) to hunt pirates, only to find upon his arrival in the Indian Ocean that his crew expected to plunder nearly every vessel they encountered. Kidd struggled to keep everything on the up and up. He even killed his gunner with a bucket in an attempt to punish his mutinous uprising. And yet, when he returned to the colonies he soon discovered he had been accused of piracy himself. Kidd was shipped to London where he protested his innocence in one of the most sensational trials of the early modern period. When the commission that would have proven his innocence went missing, Kidd was found guilty and summarily executed. Over the next century, this possibly innocent man would become the most iconic “pirate” in American history. I suggest a depiction of Kidd that is anguished and morally ambiguous, as a man caught between the pressures of an avaricious crew and the political machinations of his social betters.

—Mark Hanna, Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego and Associate Director of the Institute of Arts and Humanities

A Wartime Outdoor Adventure

The US Army's 10th Mountain Division assault on Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in the Northern Apennines (Italy) in February 1945 was very dramatic. They scaled a sheer cliff that the Germans left unguarded, assuming no one could get up it, and took the enemy by surprise. The move proved key in opening up an offensive that over the next three months carried the 10th all the way to the Alps.

The 10th Mountain Division is the only unit in the entire history of the American military that came into existence thanks to the lobbying of civilians, in this case prominent skiers and climbers who, in the years leading up to American involvement in the Second World War, pointed to the need to create a U.S. Army counterpart to German, Italian and Finnish mountain and ski troops. When official authorization finally came in the fall of 1941 for the organization of a unit of specially trained mountain troops, the National Ski Patrol was given a leading role in the recruitment of qualified candidates for the division.

From the Division’s capture of the German-held Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in the Northern Apennines in February of 1945, through the Po Valley offensive that began on April 14, to the capture of Lake Garda in the shadow of the Alps at the beginning of May, the 10th remained in the advance of the Allied push through northern Italy until the moment all the guns fell silent.

—Maurice Isserman, professor of American History at Hamilton College

The Life of Thomas/ine Hall

A story from early America with a modern resonance is the tale of the person of indeterminate sex known variously as Thomas or Thomasine Hall, in 1627 Virginia. Raised as a girl in England, Thomas/ine, who seems to have been a hermaphrodite with a sly sense of humor about identity, adopted male garb and first participated in an English attack on the French Ile de Rhé and then migrated to Virginia as a male indentured servant. Once in Virginia, Hall occasionally dressed as a woman. This confused other Virginians, resulting in a court case to determine his/her sexual and gender identity. The court's decision made Hall officially "both" by ordering Hall to wear a combination of male and female clothing. I and others have written about this case at some length, based on a court record of just one and a half pages. We don't know what happened to Hall or much about Hall's life before he/she came to Virginia; therefore, a filmmaker could have great freedom of imagination in developing the story in a variety of ways.

I envision Laverne Cox or Johnny Depp as Thomas/ Thomasine.

—Mary Beth Norton, 2018 president of the American Historical Association, Pulitzer Prize finalist for Founding Mothers and Fathers, and professor of American History at Cornell University

Inside a Shameful Moment

I'd like to see a film about the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, one of the most shameful (and consequently dramatic) episodes in modern U.S. history. The round-up of citizens, the appropriation of some of their property, the confinement in what were essentially concentration camps — it all seems impossible, but it was all too true. Such a film could be not only highly dramatic, but also profoundly instructive: it would show that it can happen here.

—Daniel Okrent, former Time Inc. Editor-at-Large and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History for Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center

“Freedom Papers”

When a young Muslim woman from Senegambia disembarked on the shore of the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue around 1785, the first person to purchase her as a slave gave her the name "Rosalie." Within a few years, the colony was in revolution and the French National Convention had abolished slavery. But Napoleon had other ideas, ordering an expeditionary force to the colony in 1802 to seize General Toussaint Louverture and reinstate slavery. Caught in the ensuing warfare, Rosalie fled with her daughter Elisabeth across the Windward Passage to Cuba. But was freedom portable, or might they be enslaved by force once in a slaveholding jurisdiction?

The true story of Rosalie Vincent, her daughter, and her six grandsons sweeps from West Africa to the Caribbean to Louisiana, where during the Civil War two of those grandsons stepped forward as champions of equal rights for men – and women. In 1867 Edward Tinchant, who described himself as a “son of Africa,” won election to the convention convened to draft the new constitution by which Louisiana would re-enter the Union. He would now have the opportunity to inscribe in the state’s founding document a vision of the freedom sought by those who had come before. Two generations later, a great-great-granddaughter of Rosalie Vincent faced a new and unbounded racism as the German army swept across Europe. Marie-José Tinchant joined the French Resistance, but was arrested, bringing her face to face with 20th century enslavement as a laborer in the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

—Rebecca J. Scott, Professor of History & Law at the University of Michigan and president of the American Society for Legal History

An Activist Thriller

On Nov. 1, 1972, a caravan of a thousand American Indians arrived in Washington, exhausted from a journey that began months ago on the Northern Plains. From many different tribes, the caravan included elders and infants and everyone in between, and they expected to meet with officials in the Nixon Administration. But no meetings had been arranged, and, worse, neither had housing. Having nowhere else to go, they soon seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building, armed it with homemade explosives, and vowed they would die unless the government met their demands. The siege lasted a week, ending without explosions or loss of life, or even much national press coverage. The country was focused on the last week of a presidential election and rumored breakthroughs at the Paris Peace Talks that might finally end the Vietnam War. And yet the Washington Post, quoting official estimates, said that only the British burning of Washington in 1812 and the San Francisco earthquake caused more destruction to federal buildings.

Remembered today as a historical footnote, it nonetheless set the stage for a dramatic change in fortunes. The BIA takeover was a humiliating defeat for Indian activism, yet it lead directly to the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee a few months later, making the American Indian Movement (AIM) the vanguard of Indian hopes and dreams.

This could be a political thriller in the style of Seven Days in May and Three Days of the Condor. The action moves from the barricades of the siege, where AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks desperately sought to manage the chaos, to the West Wing, where Nixon’s aides try to defuse the confrontation.

Paul Chaat Smith, Associate Curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

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