Congress passed the Martin Luther King Day holiday to make sure that we remember the man and the movement. Both have been depicted in fictional Hollywood movies and documentary films.
Here is a list of the 50 best films about the civil rights movement, including some that describe people and events prior to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v Board of Education ruling and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which are often viewed as the key events that catalyzed the modern movement.
“A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom” (1996) – chronicles the life of the man often called the father of the modern civil rights movement, who led the first Black trade union and was the real force behind the 1963 March on Washington
“At the River I Stand” (1993) – about the 1968 garbage workers strike that brought MLK to Memphis
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (2015) – combines archival footage and interviews with surviving Panthers and FBI agents to tell the story of the revolutionary black organization in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Breaking The Huddle: The Integration of College Football” (2008) -- chronicles how the civil rights movement pressured Southern universities to integrate their football teams, focusing on the University of Alabama team of legendary Crimson Tide head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
“Brother Outsider” (2002) -- about Bayard Rustin, longtime civil rights and peace activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington
“Eyes on the Prize” (1987-1990) -- 14-part series that chronicles the movement from 1954 through 1985
“February One” (2003) -- tells the story of The Greensboro Four, four African American college freshman who staged a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter on February 1, 1960, which catalyzed the sit-in movement
“Freedom On My Mind” (1994) – depicts the story of the Mississippi freedom movement in the early 1960s, focusing on the voter registration campaign called Freedom Summer
“Freedom Riders” (2010) -- tells the story of the summer of 1961 when more than 400 Black and white Americans risked their lives traveling together in the segregated South to protest segregation.
“Freedom Summer” (2014) -- describes the 10 weeks in 1964 when more than 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local African Americans to register voters in Mississippi
“Fundi” (1981) – about organizer Ella Baker, who mentored three generations of civil rights activists
“Ghosts of Ole Miss” (2012) -- about the 1962 University of Mississippi football season, which coincided with the school’s explosive racial integration.
“Home of the Brave” (2004) -- about Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit housewife who traveled to the South to work in the civil rights movement and was killed by the Klan
“Ida Wells: A Passion For Justice” (1989) -- documents the dramatic life and turbulent times of the pioneering African American journalist, activist, suffragist and anti-lynching crusader of the post-Reconstruction period.
“James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket” (1990) – chronicles the life of the novelists, essayist and activist who was a major voice for Black freedom in the 1960s.
“King: From Montgomery to Memphis” (1970) -- film biography of MLK
“Klansville USA” (2015) – explores the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan following the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, even gaining momentum in North Carolina, the most progressive Southern state
“Love and Solidarity” (2015) – about Rev. James Lawson, who brought Ghandi’s nonviolent philosophy to the U.S., mentored MLK and other activists about nonviolence, and played in a key role in the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968.
“The Loving Story” (2012) – describes the ordeal of an interracial couple from Virginia, Richard and Mildred Loving, whose 1967 Supreme Court case overturned state anti-miscegenation laws
“The Murder of Emmet Till” (2003) -- traces the story of the brutal murder of 14-year old Till in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman and the dramatic trial that followed.
“Paul Robeson: Here I Stand” (1999) -- explores the life and career of the controversial African-American athlete-actor-singer-lawyer-linguist-activist, perhaps the most all-around talented American of the 20th century.
“Richard Wright- Black Boy” (1994) -- film biography of novelist Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son, from his impoverished childhood, involvement in left-wing politics and literary relationships, to his exile and death in Paris.
“Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre” (2009) -- brings to light one of the bloodiest tragedies of the civil rights era after four decades of deliberate denial.
“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” (2001) – about one of the longest-running and most controversial courtroom pursuits of racism in American history, which led to nine black teenaged men being wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s, and led to a national campaign to exonerate them.
“Simple Justice” (1993) -- examines the tortuous legal and political path that led by Supreme Court to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine in its 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling, also told through the stories of courageous lawyers and plaintiffs.
“Soundtrack for a Revolution” (2009) – traces the history of the civil rights movement through its music
“Strange Fruit” (2002) -- the story behind Billie Holiday's signature anti-lynching song examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture that shaped the civil rights movement
“A Time for Burning” (1966) – explores the attempts of a Lutheran minister in Omaha to persuade his all-white congregation to reach out to African-American Lutherans on the other side of the city.
“The Untold Story of Emmet Till” (2005) -- Explores the bravery of Till’s mother and others who testified against Till’s killers in 1955 Mississippi.
“We Shall Overcome” (1989) -- By tracing the sources of one song, the film uncovers the diverse strands of social history which flowed together to form the Civil Rights movement.
“You Got to Move” (1985) – tells the stories of civil rights activists who participated in workshops at the Highlander Folk School, an inter-racial training center for activists in rural Tennessee
“Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun” (2008) -- film biography portrays writer Hurston as a gifted, flamboyant, and controversial figure writing about her African American roots
“42” (2013) – The story of Jackie Robinson from his signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1945 to his historic 1947 rookie season when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, including the hardships he faced from racist teammates, fans, and others.
“10,000 Black Men Named George” (2002) – depicts union activist A. Philip Randolph's efforts to organize the black porters of the Pullman Rail Company in the 1920s
“All the Way” (2016) – Bryan Cranston stars as Lyndon Johnson, who becomes the President after JFK’s assassination and spends his first year in office fighting to pass the Civil Rights Act and gain the trust of Martin Luther King.
“The Butler” (2013) -- As Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect his life and work, his wife (played by Oprah Winfrey), and his son, who gets swept up in the rising tide of black radicalism and separatism.
“Fences” (2016) – In this film version of August Wilson’s play, a working-class African-American father (played by Denzel Washington) tries to raise his family in the Pittsburgh of the 1950s, while coming to terms with his troubled past, the racism he confronts every day, and his son’s hopes that the world is changing for the better.
“Freedom Song” -- (2006) – Describes the efforts of SNCC to register voters and change minds in a small town in Mississippi (based on the actual town of McComb) in 1961, starring Danny Glover.
“Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996) – Depicts the real-life efforts of a Mississippi district attorney (played by Alec Baldwin) and the widow (Whoopi Goldberg) of Medgar Evers to finally bring a white racist to justice for the 1963 murder of the civil rights leader.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) – Tepid by today’s standards, the film’s all-star cast (Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn) depicts the anxieties of a liberal white middle class couple when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé.
“The Help” (2011) – Looks at life in the 1960s South from the perspective of African American maids, the daily hardships they endure, and their participation in the civil rights movement despite retaliation from their white employers, starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer , and Emma Stone
“In the Heat of the Night” (1967) -- An African American police detective from Philadelphia, PA (played by Sidney Poitier) is asked to investigate a murder in a racially hostile Mississippi town under the guidance of a skeptical white sheriff (played by Rod Steiger).
“The Long Walk Home” (1990) -- Sissy Spacek and Woopi Goldberg star in this remarkable depiction of the Montgomery bus boycott from participants’ perspective.
“Loving” (2016) -- The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, whose challenge of their anti-miscegenation arrest for their marriage in Virginia led to a legal battle that would end at the Supreme Court.
“Malcolm X” (1992) – Denzel Washington stars as the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam, to his changing views about race and politics.
“Mississippi Burning” (1988) – Two white FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) with very different styles arrive in Mississippi and face hostility from most local residents when they investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists (based on a true story)
“Nothing But a Man” (1964) -- A proud black railroad worker tries to maintain his dignity in a racist small town near Birmingham, Alabama, after he marries the local preacher's daughter.
“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) – film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s pathbreaking play, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Deal, describes the struggles of a black family trying to survive in Chicago and striving for a better way of life
“Selma” (2014) -- A chronicle of Martin Luther King's campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, focusing on his efforts to hold together the civil rights coalition and negotiate a working partnership with President Johnson
“To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962) – Based on Harper Lee’s novel, Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, who defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge and his children against prejudice.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).
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