10 Movies that Will Inspire You to Research Your Family History
When it’s as cold as it is this time of year, there’s nothing better than to curl up indoors and put on a movie. As I genealogist, there are a few favorites that I automatically reach for. These movies in their own way speak to us of the struggles of family, immigration, and other stories that  we can all relate to in some way. So, in no particular order:

1. Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan stars in this story of a young woman from Co. Wexford, Ireland, who was forced to immigrate to Brooklyn to look for work in the 1950s. One of my favorite scenes is the transatlantic crossing, an image that many of us do not consider when we think about the voyage made by millions. Without giving spoilers, I’ll only say that it’s also a great depiction of how New York was populated by immigrants from different places in waves. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, the film will make you both laugh and cry as you follow Eilish in her new life.

2. Lion (2016)

Any adoptee will tell you how many difficulties the process can bring. Lion tells the true story of Saroo, a young Indian boy, who is adopted by a Tasmanian couple at a very young age. As he grows older, he begins to remember his birth family and becomes obsessed with finding them, if only to let them know he is alright. The film also serves as a tool to bring awareness to the fact that 80,000 children go missing in India alone each year. 

3. Woman in Gold (2015)

The reclamation case of the Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele Block-Bauer, also known as Woman in Gold, illustrates beautifully glimmers of a gilded age through the memories of Maria Altmann played by the ever-stunning Dame Helen Mirren. Her lawyer, Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds) in the process goes on his own journey to reconnect with his ancestry. As history and modernity meet, the characters clash and painful memories of the Nazi occupation of Austria resurface. A moving depiction of confronting the past, I suggest a box of tissues.

4. Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw shines as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the elegant biracial niece of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in the eponymous film based on a true story. It has long been speculated that it was she who influenced his judgement in Gregson v. Gilbert, otherwise known as the Zong massacre. Her personal struggle to find her place in Georgian society, while her uncle is set to make his ruling on the controversial (at the time) court case that would shape the socioeconomic history of Britain forever. I am ever grateful to Misan Sagay for bringing this remarkable story out of the archives and into public memory.

5. Godfather: Part II (1974)

The debate over which of the classic mafia trilogy is the best will, I am sure, continue for eternity. I really like Part II because it juxtaposes the early years of Vito Corleone with the life of his son Michael (Al Pacino) during the late 1950s and the 1960s—showing that we are all, in our own ways, the products of the lives that came before us and our own choices. 

6. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Everything about this film is remarkable—from the fact that this original manuscript has survived since 1853 to the content of the story itself. I cannot emphasize enough how important stories like these are and how important it is for us to keep them from being forgotten or lost to time. Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir will make you angry, weep, and find a way to hope. The power of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s commanding performance cannot be overstated.

7. Philomena (2013)

During the 1950-60s it was common-place in Ireland for unwed mothers to be “relieved” of their babies in Ireland by the Catholic Church. Dame Judi Dench plays one such mother as the eponymous character in this adaptation of a true story. Assisted by a journalist formerly of the BBC, Philomena searches for the son that was taken from her decades ago. Another one that requires tissues, but well worth it.

8. Gangs of New York (2002)

Another based-on-a-book classic, Gangs of New York paints a vivid (and sometimes overly explicit) picture of crime-filled Five Points and its feuding rival gangs (and for that matter, the feuding rival police forces). Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall politics are well represented through Jim Broadbent. Though the film seems to last forever, and its accuracy at some points is questionable, the violence, poverty, and corruption it portrays was a reality for many in the area at the time. The battles between “native-born” New Yorkers and immigrants and the drafting of Irish and others into “Lincoln’s Army” were also revealing additions.


9. August: Osage County (2013)

We’ve all had those moments when we think there can be nothing worse than a family reunion. But few of us have it as bad as theWeston sisters in August: Osage County. Based on the stage play, this star-studded cast portrays the struggle of the extended family as secrets come out during a funeral. It just goes to show that every family has skeletons in the closet—you just have to be brave enough to sweep them out. And while you’re doing your sweeping, remember that everyone else has them too. Accept them.

10. Secondhand Lions (2003)

Remember that story about your two crazy uncles who secretly were millionaires? Or that relative who traveled the world and seemed larger than life? Well, if Hub and Garth McCann (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine) are your uncles, you can guarantee they’re true. The tale of their adventures is spell-binding and will make you reconsider doubting all those “old wives’ tales” about your own family. All-in-all, a heart warming classic to go back to time after time. 

This list is not at all exhaustive. Which are your favorites?