17 Must-See Movies That Show America As It Actually Is

If you think of a movie that is about America, you might think of a western, a biopic of a historical figure, or a film that's trying to be overly patriotic. But there are endless ways to show American life on film just as there are endless ways to live life as an American. And, in recent years, more and more movies that show the actual diversity of America have been seen and appreciated.

It took a long time to get to this point and there's still a long way to go. In fact, one of the movies in the following slideshow is a documentary about just that, and how awful film representation has been for transgender people.


In 2020, Hollywood is still coming to terms with the fact that American movies don't have to be about white, straight, middle class, cisgender people — and learning that people are interested in stories that aren't always about that same group. Poor people are Americans. Non-white people are Americans. Gay people are Americans. Trans people are Americans.

It's a really big country, full of a lot of very different people. From horror to comedy to drama, all the films in this slideshow either slow a part of America that isn't often seen or comment on America as the troubled, complicated, diverse country it is.


Stream on Netflix

Growing up is going to look different depending on where you are in America and who you are. In Moonlight, the coming-of-age story is about a young black man in Miami, Chiron — played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, at different points in his life — who is struggling to accept the fact that he is gay. The film won Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars after one of the most shocking mix-ups of all time.


Stream on Hulu

Tangerine follows two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who get into all sorts of drama after finding out that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her. Trans stories are rarely told on film in the first place, but especially not with trans actors as is, thankfully, the case with Tangerine.

Get Out

Rent or Buy on Amazon

The horror movie breakout that won writer and director Jordan Peele an Oscar is about a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who visits his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family and discovers that they're up to some really creepy, really racist stuff that involves hypnotization and a particularly scary cup of tea. It includes both commentary on America's slavery past and on the actions of white people today that are colored by that history. Yet, because it's by Peele, it's really funny, too.

Knock Down the House

Stream on Netflix

The documentary Knock Down the House follows the campaigns of four women running for Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela, and Paula-Jean Swearengin. The film gives an inside look at how grassroots congressional campaigns are run and at a new generation of politicians who are looking to diversify Washington and make it more progressive.  

The Florida Project

Stream on Netflix

The Florida Project follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a little girl who lives in poverty in a hotel near Disney World in Florida with her mother (Brie Vinaite). Moonee has carefree fun and gets into plenty of mischief in a way that feels very true to the childhood experience — albeit not one that everyone will relate to.


Buy it on Amazon

Hustlers is a particularly American crime movie. The film stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as women who devise a plan to scam men out of money. Set amid the late aughts financial crisis and based on a true story, Hustlers doesn't ask audiences to pick sides, but rather to understand the state of the world that would lead these women to make the decisions they did.


Stream on Netflix

Disclosure is a documentary about transgender representation in TV and film, starting at the beginning of movie history. The subjects interviewed are all trans or non-binary and include actors, writers, producers, and activists. They comment on positive portrayals of trans people and on the many examples of offensive and harmful representation — most of the examples coming from American media.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Rent on Amazon

Beasts of the Southern Wild follows a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a secluded Louisiana community called The Bathtub with her father (Dwight Henry). The story comments on the environment and America's socio-economic issues.


Stream on Netflix

13th explores the connection from slavery to Jim Crow laws to the current prison industrial complex, arguing that the 13th Amendment is responsible. The amendment ended slavery, but allows labor as punishment for a crime, a fact that has been taken advantage of with unfair arrests of black Americans.

The Big Sick

Stream on Amazon Prime

The Big Sick was written by real life couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani and is based on the true story of Gordon becoming very sick early on in their relationship. It's about health and family relationships and interracial dating and racism all at once.

The Farewell

Stream on Amazon Prime

Most of the dramedy The Farewell doesn't take place in America, but the country provides important background to the story. Billi (Awkwafina), a woman from an immigrant family in New York City, finds out that her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) in China is dying, but that the family doesn't plan to tell her. Billi goes with her family to China, where walking the line between American and Chinese customs is more difficult than ever.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Stream on Netflix

Spider-Man can be anyone is the takeaway from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And it's pretty amazing to see the superhero as a black Latino teenager named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). The new take on the classic story is a great example that "All-American" doesn't mean white.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Streaming on Amazon Prime

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a look at a changing city. It follows a man, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), and his friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), as they try to hold on to a home Jimmie's grandfather built that is in an expensive gentrified San Francisco neighborhood.

Winter's Bone

Stream on HBO Max

If you want to see a part of America that isn't often shown on film, check out Winter's Bone set in the Missouri Ozarks. The thriller is about a young woman, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who has to track down her father so her family's house isn't taken away to pay his jail bond.


Stream on Netflix

Director Dee Rees' Mudbound is centered around two families in Mississippi, one black and one white, who both have a family member fighting in World War II. When the two men (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) return, the differences in the way they are accepted back into 1940s American life are stark and echo of the country's past and future.

Uncut Gems

Stream on Netflix

Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as an extremely manic man who owns a jewelry shop in New York City. It gives a look at gambling addiction, NYC's Diamond District, basketball, Long Island, the particularities of the year 2012, and a very specific segment of American life.

Miss Juneteenth

Rent on Amazon

Miss Juneteenth follows a woman (Nicole Beharie), who won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas and is now forcing her daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) to enter the pageant in the hopes that she'll have a better future than she had after winning the title. Aside from being a slice of American life, the title and pageant are both celebrating Juneteenth, the day the last American slaves found out about their freedom.
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