10 Thought-Provoking Movies to Watch on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Revisit the history of the Civil Rights era and the incredible legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in these inspiring films.
Ava DuVernay directed this Oscar-nominated drama about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary and inspiring leadership during the Civil Rights Movement. The movie follows the intense three-month period when Dr. King (played by David Oyelowo) fights to secure voting rights for blacks in Alabama. He leads the historic march from Selma to Montgomery as troopers threaten the peaceful protest from the sidelines. Finally, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) supports the protesters and secures passage of a bill that ends voting restrictions—a historic victory for civil rights. These Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes will make you stop and think.
‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ (2013)
Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, the butler who spent 34 years working in the White House, where he witnessed several presidential administrations grappling with social politics. One of Cecil’s sons (David Oyelowo) becomes active in the Civil Rights Movement even as his father steadfastly serves presidents while dealing with unequal pay and less opportunity for African American staff. Based on a true story, this acclaimed film shows the struggles of a family amid the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and its strides and limitations.
‘The Long Walk Home’ (1990)
Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek star in this drama set during the historic bus boycott in Birmingham, Alabama. Goldberg plays the maid of a well-to-do white family who chooses to walk miles to and from work to support the boycott. Initially, her employer (Spacek) doesn’t understand her maid’s resolve. She drives her there and back a few days a week, then eventually helps carpool other black workers, an experience that causes her to empathize with the struggles of African Americans. Soon, she stands with them in the protest movement, in spite of the blowback from other whites, including her husband.
‘Mississippi Burning’ (1988)
Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI detectives investigating the murders of three Civil Rights activists in this devastating drama loosely based on a similar crime that occurred in 1964. During the investigation, the townspeople won’t cooperate, choosing instead to protect the local Klansmen who committed the murders. The detectives must confront the widespread racial hatred that infects the southern community as they become even more determined to bring the murderers to justice. The film seeks to illuminate the long fight against racism that didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
‘The Help’ (2011)
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer star as two black women who work as maids in the South during the Civil Rights era. Despite the unfair conditions of their work, both women display the strength and character needed to survive under the struggles of racism. Emma Stone stars as the young white writer who helps them publish their stories so others can learn the truth about their lives. Spencer garnered a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stirring performance of grace and grit through struggle.
‘Four Little Girls’ (1997)
Spike Lee directed this moving documentary about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He interviews the family members of the four little girls who were killed there while changing into their choir robes that Sunday morning. The Academy Award-nominated film looks at the aftermath of the event and its impact on Civil Rights legislation. Only one of the four men involved was convicted 14 years later (subsequent trials and convictions didn’t happen until the 2000s.) Lee’s film will leave you in tears at the tragic loss and devastating impact of hate crimes.
‘The Black Power Mix Tape’ (1967–1975)
This acclaimed documentary was created with found footage shot by a Swedish news crew while reporting on the Black Power movement during the 1960s. It also features contemporary interviews with African American artists and scholars who provide context for the footage as they describe the impact of the movement on the history of Civil Rights. Most importantly, the film recasts the misunderstood militancy of Black Power politics in a much more positive and humanistic light.
‘Ghosts of Mississippi’ (1996)
In this true story, Whoopi Goldberg stars as the widow of Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights activist assassinated in 1963. The white supremacist accused of killing him (played by James Woods) had not been brought to justice until 30 years later, in a trial that finally convicts him of the murder. Alec Baldwin plays the assistant district attorney determined to bring justice to the Evers family despite political push back.
‘The Rosa Parks Story’ (2002)
Angela Bassett offers a searing portrayal of Rosa Parks in this made-for-television docudrama about the woman who refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Alabama in 1955. Directed by acclaimed film artist Julie Dash, the true story follows Parks as she is arrested and taken to jail. Outrage over her treatment spawns a citywide bus boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This powerful story of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement also stars Cicely Tyson.
‘Ruby Bridges’ (1998)
Disney’s made-for-television docudrama follows the inspiring true story of Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African American girl who was one of the first to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. At the time, the attempt at racial integration causes an uproar. Teachers refuse to teach and parents pull their students from classes. Penelope Ann Miller plays Barbara Hershey, the white teacher who teaches Ruby as her sole student for a year, as white students refuse to attend class with her. Ruby faces severe protests, but is a key figure of strength during the Civil Rights era, and grows up to continue her activism.