In need of a little inspiration and have a few hours to spare? Check out a few of these real-life legends whose lives have been captured on the big screen.
Here are the best movies based on true stories currently streaming on HBO.
1) 12 Years a Slave
History is presented as personal and immediate in 12 Years a Slave, the Oscar-award-winning film based on former slave Solomon Northrop’s memoir. Northrop was a free black man from upstate New York, who had his liberty snatched from him after being taken and sold for slave labor in Louisiana. Steve McQueen goes beyond telling his story compellingly; viewers are forced to confront, on a deeply unsettling level, the gruesome realities of slavery. When Northrop is whipped by his masters, the skillful cinematography makes the viewer feel every stroke. This movie also made actress Lupita Nyong’o a breakout star, winning her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
2) 127 hours
While exploring a remote canyon in Utah, mountaineer and adventurer Aron Ralston (James Franco) becomes trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. Over the next five days, Ralston examines his life and weighs his options: He can either amputate his arm so that he can extricate himself and possibly make it back to civilization, or remain pinned to the canyon wall and die. Based on Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, director Danny Boyle (of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting) films the unfilmable—a man, a crevice, a sliver of sky, and the ultimate choice.
Jackie Robinson was one of the best baseball players in American history and is known for breaking racial barriers in the sport. In 1947, a time recent enough for many alive to remember, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was suspended for dating a married actress, but Phillies manager Ben Chapman could regularly hurl racial slurs. 42 captures Robinson’s struggle to cross that color line. 42 has now been retired from professional baseball of his respect for his legacy, and this movie pays the man solid tribute.
4) American Gangster
One of Denzel Washington’s most famous films, the real-life Frank Lucas was every bit as calculating and smooth as his on-screen persona. Inheriting a drug-dealing scheme from one of Harlem’s leading mobsters, for whom he was a chauffeur, Lucas uses his uncanny business sense to become one of the the inner city’s most powerful crime bosses. At the peak of his run, Lucas was worth around $150 million, mostly from heroin sales. A dogged cop, played by Russell Crowe, eventually snags Lucas, who cuts a plea deal for a reduced sentence for giving up corrupt cops on the force.
5) Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X captures the famous leader in his transition from preacher’s son Malcolm Little to the divisive Malcolm X, and shows his growth along the way. Lee treats Malcolm’s story with empathy and compassion, and there is a sense that given his circumstances, most people would’ve turned to his same views. Rather than alienating white audiences, the viewer leaves relating more to Malcolm.
6) A Beautiful Mind
John Nash was a brilliant Princeton mathematician whose discoveries in game theory impact our daily lives. He was also a schizophrenic and believed the Russians were sending him messages in the front page of the New York Times. Eventually, with the help of his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) Nash learned how to function again in the academic world, and he went on to win the Nobel Prize in mathematics. Starring Russell Crowe as Nash, A Beautiful Mind captures mental illness as what it is—not grotesque or silly, but simply as a disease with profound impacts.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. San Francisco in the ’70s was a haven for gay culture, but often the community was persecuted by the police. Milk, by then living in the Castro with his boyfriend (James Franco), saw this and decided to do something about it. After being elected to the Board of Supervisors, he made a powerful call to the gay community to come out to their families and push America forward. Through his bully pulpit, he challenged champions of homophobic views like Anita Bryant. Sean Penn plays Milk beautifully, showing what an ordinary man can do through his yearning for making the world a better place.
8) The Blind Side
A big (scratch that, huge) black homeless kid, a rich white Southern family, and plenty of football cliches combine for a touching movie in 2009’s The Blind Side. Michael Oher is a youth in the foster care system who catches the eye of a private-school football coach due to his large size and ends up being adopted into the coach’s family. Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for her portrayal of tough but charming Southern mom, Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Blind Side portrays what can happen when two worlds overlap in a way that brings out the best in humanity.
9) Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey underwent drastic physical transformations to play AIDS victim Ron Woodroof, snagging himself several awards and quite the porn ‘stache. At the height of the AIDS crisis mid-1980s, Texas electrician Ron Woodroof is diagnosed and told he has a month left to live. The U.S, with its puritanical stigmas about the disease, had not put much effort towards researching the disease. Rather than give up, however, Woodruff teams up with a fellow AIDS patient (Jared Leto) and smuggles illegal drugs and treatment methods into the U.S. Woodruff’s efforts are credited with helping to bring AIDS into mainstream research focus and thus saving thousands of lives.
10) American Sniper
When it first came out in 2014, American Sniper caused waves of controversy condemning it for its portrayal of the Iraq war. Clint Eastwood’s box-office smash was loosely based on Chris Kyle’s autobiographical memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S History, and fudges many of the facts (from the way they’re presented by Kyle himself in the memoir as well as the proven version of events) to turn the tale into one of black-and-white (and red, white, and blue) morality. Cooper gives quite the performance as Kyle, putting on 60 pounds of muscle and harnessing his inner Texan.
11) 300: Rise of an Empire
“This. Is. Sparta!” Perhaps one of the most drunkenly quoted movie lines of all time, it is unfortunate that many people don’t know it’s actually based on the historical battle of Thermopylae and its ensuing Greek vs. Persian squabbles. 300: Rise of an Empire continues the saga with Greek reinforcements arriving to support the Spartans against Persian emperor Xerxes, all set to some pretty epic CGI action.
12) The Tuskegee Airmen
For a 1995 television movie, The Tuskegee Airmen is surprisingly well-made and acted. An early Laurence Fishburne film, the self-explanatory title explores the training of an all-black flight force during WWII. Despite some predictable plot turns (racist, white colonel giving endless shit to them, uplifting patriotic tones), the movie’s protagonists seem real enough to pull through. Realistic aircraft footage and fight scenes balance out the cliched dialogue, and a young Fishburne and Phifer carry the inspiring message nicely.
Unbroken tells the tale of Louis Zamperini, a U.S Olympic athlete who enlists in WWII. Zamperini survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific after a plane crash, only to be picked up by the Japanese and put in a prison camp. Angelina Jolie’s directorial efforts produce compelling shots of Zamperini’s trials, and actor Jack O’Connell exerts tremendous charisma in his portrayal of the protagonist. However, the movie is blighted by being a bit too “pretty.” The audience never really feels Zamperini’s personal plight, but rather is put on a WWII history tour where the clouds are perfectly placed and only one drop of blood mars Zamperini’s post-torture movie star face.