What's an "all-American" film? There is no true answer. Like America itself, my concept of a Fourth of July film festival would be complex, entertaining, a tad educational and provocative. Each year, Turner Classic Movies populates its Fourth of July schedule with plenty of biopics of famous Americans. And while I whole-heartedly endorse a few of them, I'd like to sprinkle in a few extras—including portrayals of America's finest and worst moments.
1776 (1972): Be certain to view the "director's cut." President Richard Nixon requested to have the song "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" removed from the film because it suggested conservatives were the ones hindering American Independence. Producer Jack Warner conceded to Nixon's wishes. The number was restored after Warner's death. For that piece of history alone, it's worth watching.
12 Years a Slave (2013): This landmark Best Picture Oscar-winner, chronicling the 1853 diary of Solomon Northup, is one of cinema's most powerful dramatizations of our nation's greatest inhuman cruelty.
All the President's Men (1976): Yes, it perfectly captures the Constitutional crisis that was the Watergate era. But it shines brightest as the best example of a true American art form: the detective/crime story.
Do the Right Thing (1989): Director/writer Spike Lee picked up a long overdue Oscar earlier this year for BlacKkKlansman, but his finest has to be this 80s comedy/drama that expertly captures the moment when simmering racial tension hits the boiling point.
Field of Dreams (1989): An adaptation of W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, this film checks a lot of boxes, culturally and historically. James Earl Jones' monologue on baseball is an ode to the American experience.
How the West Was Won (1962): True, this nearly 3-hour epic is Caucasian revisionism of 19th-century America, but it's a magnificent technical achievement; its cinematography, editing and particularly its score by Alfred Newman is legendary.
Lone Star (1996): This little-known neo-western from director/writer John Sayles is a sunbaked slice of the psychological boundaries between whites and browns in the 1990s.
Philadelphia (1993): Yes, it's an Oscar-winning legal drama but, more importantly, it's one of the first and best mainstream films to acknowledge homophobia. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington have never been better.
Reds (1981): The fact that this epic about the American Communist movement of the mid-20th century was produced by a major studio is a miracle. And Jack Nicholson's supporting role as Eugene O'Neill is near-perfect.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): Director John Ford and cinematographer Winton Hoch's images of Monument Valley remain the greatest landscapes ever captured for the big screen.
The Godfather Part II (1974): Most cinephiles quote the dialogue and agree that the story is a masterpiece. But direct Francis Coppola's recreated set pieces of 20th-century America are time capsule-worthy.
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944): There are undoubtedly more than a few artistic liberties taken here, but Frederic March's performance as Sam Clemens is a wonderment.
West Side Story (1961): It's still the best example of a really good Broadway show turned into an even greater movie. It's the best of the best from Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography) at the early stages of their careers.
Wilson (1944): This often-forgot biopic of our 28th President was a box office flop but it's still one of Hollywood's best efforts of portraying American political melodrama.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): You can't possibly omit this joyous musical with James Cagney. Start watching for a few minutes and you'll surrender your heart before you know it.