As we approach the 244th Independence Day of the United States of America (USA), there is no better way to celebrate or, if you are not an American, to appreciate the greatness and uniqueness of this country than watching some great documentaries about it.
The history of the USA is a very different story than that of other older and more established nations. It features not aristocrats and feudal lords but a unique social experiment that has turned into a major success story.
Here, we present a list of five brilliant documentaries about the history of the United States and its various aspects.
BBC Art of America
A great country or civilization cannot exist without producing art that is commensurate with its economic and military power. Good Old BBC has made a series of documentaries about the history of arts in various countries, all of them brilliantly anchored by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. Not surprisingly, Art of America is possibly the most unique.
Graham-Dixon explores the evolution of American art that mirrors in many ways the evolution of American history and society. From the near-sacred images of founding fathers to the modern art of the likes of Jackson Pollock, this three-part series is a great visual journey.
It will take you ahead of the pop culture of Hollywood and jazz to the lesser-known but equally brilliant creations by those who explore the more rarefied forms of human expressions.
Liberty! The American Revolution
The American Revolution or the War of Independence is unlike any other in the history of the world. Unlike other revolutions, French or Russian, it did not replace monarchy with dictatorship by a charismatic wartime hero. Instead, it was a revolution perpetrated as much with ideas as weapons.
Liberty! The American Revolution presents a sober and detailed account of the events, both in the debating councils as well as battlefields which resulted in the birth of the United States of America. Its most distinctive feature is the monologues from the leading characters in the story, from the King of Britain to the ordinary soldier in the American Army.
The only character who isn't played by an actor but only voiced is George Washington. This is understandable as in some ways, the Founding President is too sacred to be imagined in the flesh and blood of an actor but whose voice mattered more than others.
Civil War by Ken Burns
Regarded by many as the greatest documentary in American history, this 13-part series describes the seminal events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War. While some critics believe it focused too much on the battles, the series amply explores the wider themes of the conflict such as questions of slavery and race. It also looks at the personalities of the people involved.
The most prominent role in it is played by historian Shelby Foote who was introduced to the wider audiences through this series and whose fame grew exponentially with it. Providing valuable and interesting inputs through his bites throughout the series, that too in his wonderful southern accent, he makes the story sound more interesting and relatable.
This remains the definitive documentary about the Civil War and is yet to be matched.
Thomas Jefferson is another masterwork of Ken Burns that provides a close look at the life of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the nation's third President. One of the greatest founding fathers, Jefferson's legacy is very much alive and his ideas have stood the test of time.
In this documentary, Burns has tried to provide an in-depth view of the many facets of Jefferson's personality. The documentary also settled the debate about his illegitimate relationship with Sally Hemmings who was a slave on his plantation. A genetic study was initiated following this series which proved the liaison.
But that is only a footnote in the story of one of the greatest and most influential people of his time. Jefferson didn't just play a role in the emergence of the United States but of a whole new way of understanding politics.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
Theodore Roosevelt is regarded as the most American President of all time. Franklin Roosevelt saw the country through both the Great Depression and the World War. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin, is regarded as one of the most influential first ladies in American history. All three of them are cousins.
This documentary, also a creation of Ken Burns, lets you into the lives and affairs of these three individuals, linked by familial and historical ties. Perhaps no family has affected the affairs of this country as much as the Roosevelts and it requires a man with the genius of Burns to do justice to them.
It is a must-watch for all those who want to understand how this country, once committed to isolationism, turned out to be the world's biggest superpower.