The US Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"—but this hasn't always been people's experience.
History is plagued with slavery, violations, and injustice, and many films have explored this and given voices to the lost lives of the past. But in the words of Walter White: "There's more than one kind of prison."
Life is full of metaphorical, societal, chemical prisons via things like addiction, debt, prejudice, illness, and political systems.
Here are our picks for the best movies about freedom and liberty that eloquently explore liberation in various forms.
12. Amazing Grace (2006)
Directed by Michael Apted
Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon
Biography, Drama, History (1h 58m)
One of the most obvious examples of liberation is the abolition of the slave trade, which has happened in many ways across many countries over many years and decades.
For Britain, it was William Wilberforce who led the campaign in the late 19th century during post-religious enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, this move made him less than popular in the House of Commons.
Nonetheless, Wilberforce pushed on until the slave trade slowly eroded and eventually disappeared in the British Empire.
Ioan Gruffudd stars as the determined Member of Parliament, whose public speaking skills were so eloquent that he was nicknamed the "Nightingale of the Commons." Pretty handy for a politician!
Michael Apted's earnest biopic is named after the 1772 hymn "Amazing Grace," the author of which features as a character in the movie.
11. Freedom Writers (2007)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 3m)
Teacher characters in movies tend to fall into two buckets: either overly strict antagonists (e.g. Matilda and The Breakfast Club) or understanding mentors (e.g. Dead Poets Society and Half Nelson).
In Freedom Writers, we get the latter in Erin Gruwell (played by Hilary Swank), who becomes a teacher for at-risk students in California.
Richard LaGravenese adapted the 1999 book The Freedom Writers Diary for this biopic, which was comprised of real entries from her students.
Hilary Swank delivers her usual caliber of acting as the sheltered English teacher who struggles to gain the respect of her teen students. Although they initially judge Erin for her privileged white position, she comes to understand and even inspire them.
Her empathy and guidance is what ultimately provides some freedom from their troubled home lives and gang rivalries, and in this safe space they go on to publish their own book.
10. Room (2015)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)
In Room, Joy is a prisoner without the bars and her son Jack is a prisoner without even knowing he is one.
Held captive in a tiny room by "Old Nick," Joy (played by Brie Larson) is regularly raped by her captor while trying to shield her son (played by Jacob Tremblay) from the fact that they're hostages.
Joy does this by pretending "Room" is the entire world—up until an opportunity to escape presents itself.
And while they do escape, "freedom" remains a distant concept as Joy finds it difficult to readjust to normal life and must live with the scars that her trauma left on her. Jack, too, is overwhelmed by the breadth of his new life, showing how freedom is not a simple concept.
Emma Donoghue turned her 2010 novel into a screenplay for this Oscar-winning drama, directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
9. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Directed by John Hughes
Starring Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara
Comedy (1h 43m)
Education is a human right that allows for independence and employment. Knowledge is, after all, power. But that doesn't mean going to school can't feel like prison!
In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris Bueller (played by Matthew Broderick) unsurprisingly decides to take a day off from high school and bask in the free time of a weekday spent joyriding through Chicago.
This fake sick day gives Ferris the space for art, sports, and even dancing on a float to The Beatles. And yet, if Ferris didn't have to go to school every day, he probably wouldn't enjoy this day off so much!
It's the paradox of good stuff: when you have too much of a good thing, it loses its value. Conversely, it's only when you're deprived of the good stuff that you can really cherish what you have.
John Hughes wrote, directed, and produced the 80s teen classic that reminds us all to "stop and look around once in a while."
8. The Master (2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Drama, History (2h 18m)
Although Freddie (played by Joaquin Phoenix) may "pay no rent" and is "free to go where you please," that doesn't make him free.
This WW2 Navy veteran is subject to a different kind of slavery—a psychological one. Freddie lives a spontaneous life of chaos and moonshine so potent that it even kills a man.
Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) invites Freddie aboard his yacht in an attempt to rehabilitate him. But despite Dodd's help, Freddie is unable to quell his addiction.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a master himself at cinematic execution, and concludes The Master on these words: "If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world."
7. Braveheart (1995)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan
Biography, Drama, History (2h 58m)
Historical epics featuring warriors and fighters tend to climax with a big, empowering speech near the end. In Braveheart, that speech comes from Mel Gibson's William Wallace as he stirs his men up before they storm into battle.
"They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!" is the iconic quote shouted by Wallace, who was commander of the Scottish rebels in the First War of Scottish Independence (1296–1328). That line sums up the entire point of Braveheart.
Although we will never know the full details of William Wallace's life, historians gathered a fair amount from the epic poem The Wallace by "Blind Harry," which was used as reference by director Randall Wallace (no relation).
6. Into the Wild (2007)
Directed by Sean Penn
Starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener
Adventure, Biography, Drama (2h 28m)
Most of us feel the pressures of consumerism and materialism in modern society: embarrassed by second-hand cars and rental situations, expected to attend college than travel the world, striving for wealth and success over contentment and happiness.
Those are everyday restrictions of our capitalist world—and Chris McCandless was one of the few people to actually do anything about it. Sean Penn retells his noble (if tragic) endeavor in Into the Wild.
Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) tosses his credit card and hits the road to experience all that nature has to offer, living off the land while traveling to his dream spot in Alaska.
He finds his life utterly more expansive, rich, and peaceful when he's answering to the mountains instead of being a CEO. Yet even while he's free, there's one thing he can't be free of: loneliness.
5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandiwe Newton
Biography, Drama (1h 57m)
Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness was a real-life guy in pursuit of freedom, who searched for it in stockbroking.
After losing his life savings on a bad investment, Chris ends up divorced, homeless, and unable to land a job. He vows to climb out of his hole, to find a place in the office, to finally break out of the tightening cage imposed on him by poverty and debt.
Will Smith gives a fiery, determined performance as the down-on-his-luck salesman, with Smith's real-life son Jaden Smith also appearing as Chris's five-year-old boy, Christopher Jr.
The authenticity of their father-son performance adds an extra dimension to Gabriele Muccino's already powerful biopic, in which the two must sleep on the streets while Chris works as an unpaid intern.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton
Drama (2h 22m)
The Shawshank Redemption takes the notion of "freedom" in more literal terms, with Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) plotting to escape his double life sentence at a high-security prison.
Set in 1947, Andy befriends prison smuggler Red (played by Morgan Freeman), one of the only men at Shawshank who doesn't think Andy is a freak for his quiet and gentle nature that doesn't fit in.
Together, they develop a friendship that transcends any differences they might have and share all kinds of wisdom between them.
When you imprison someone, you take away their rights as punishment for their crimes. But what if they're innocent? Does that make their freedom any more or less valuable?
Based on the novella by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption is a film buff classic with a lasting cinematic legacy. You'd never guess it was an Oscar snub or a box office flop!
3. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Biography, Drama (1h 57m)
Sickness can be restrictive, whether it's a short-term inability to work or a life-long debilitating ailment. It's even worse when you're denied access to a drug that could really help.
In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) is a cowboy who's diagnosed with AIDS. When he discovers pharmaceuticals that ease his symptoms, he decides to smuggle them into Texas.
Despite its helpfulness, the drug remains unapproved by the FDA. Why? Because it was the 1980s and HIV was still misunderstood.
While Woodroof may seem unsavory at the start of Jean-Marc Vallée's biopic, he overcomes his prejudice to help fellow sufferers and form the "Dallas Buyers Club." Through this, he gifts them some relief—some freedom—from their illness.
2. Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Drama, Western (2h 45m)
A film about a slave being "unchained" certainly has to feature on this list—especially when that film is as great as this one!
Django Unchained is one of Quentin Tarantino's best movies, filled with impeccable performances, intense dialogue, and bloody shootouts. It's everything we expect to love in a Tarantino movie!
The revisionist Western begins in 1858, where a bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz) offers a slave (played by Jamie Foxx) his freedom in exchange for his help.
From there, Django Unchained turns into a revenge thriller with appearances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson.
In his pursuit to avenge his past, Django takes back his liberation with ruthless savagery. Along the way, Django Unchained delivers some hard hits with the usual Tarantino controversies.
1. Spartacus (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Mann
Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 17m)
Most of Stanley Kubrick's films are epic. His first major one was Spartacus, based on the 1951 novel by Howard Fast (which would later inspire Ridley Scott's Gladiator).
Set in Roman times, Spartacus loosely tells the true story of a Thracian gladiator who escaped slavery in the Third Servile War.
Kirk Douglas stars as said gladiator, who's purchased by Lentulus Batiatus (played by Peter Ustinov) for his strength and defiance before he breaks out. Elected as leader of the fugitives, the escapees form their own army and do pretty well for themselves... at least, for a while.
While Spartacus himself doesn't get a happily-ever-after ending, his son "will live as a free man" thanks to his actions.