Seven Great Civil Rights Films To Watch On Martin Luther King Day

Today we celebrate Civil Rights Leader Doctor Martin Luther King. I can do no justice to Dr. King’s career with a sentence or two in an intro. Suffice it to say; King played the lead role in the 1950s and 60s helping African-Americans make a giant leap towards equal rights. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech is the stuff of legend. Martin Luther King not only led a movement but changed the course of history for an entire genre of humans.

In honor of Martin Luther King here are seven great films with civil rights as a unifying theme.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner • 1967

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Legendary actor Sidney Poitier unleashes one of cinema’s best performances in a movie about race relations from a slightly different perspective. Removed is the typical ignorant white people role for an open-minded, older, white couple who preach equality. But when their daughter comes home with a black financé, everyone must deal with the reality of not only equality but coexistence.

Malcolm X • 1992

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Directed by Spike Lee, Malcolm X features a dominant performance by Denzel Washington as the civil rights leader. Malcolm X proves to be a complicated figure who rises and falls like any hero. But a hero to some is an enemy to others. Lee’s Malcolm X is loosely based on The Autobiography Of Malcolm X and pulls few punches when it comes to examining the life and times of Malcolm X.

Freedom On My Mind • 1994

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A 1994 Oscar-nominated documentary about the “Freedom Summer” in early 60s Mississippi. Freedom On My Mind is a look into the struggles Black voters encountered while trying to gain equal access to the polls. The film is complex and compelling as it details the unique challenges of civil rights in the South.

4 Little Girls • 1997

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Spike Lee strikes again, this time with an Oscar-nominated documentary. In 1963, a bomb went off at a Baptist church in Alabama, injuring 22 people and killing four little girls, all under the age of 14. Martin Luther King called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” Lee’s masterful skill at fictional narratives works the same sort of magic on this heartfelt doc.

The Help • 2011

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Like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Help looks at the Civil Rights Era from a unique perspective. A journalist played by Emma Stone begins work on a book about two black maids. What Stone encounters is deep-rooted racism in Jackson, Mississippi. The Help is a rare combination of funny and heartbreaking, but also critical and commercial success.

The Butler • 2013

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In Shakespeare, the one who knows most about the King is the Fool, the court jester, the one always an afterthought. In the United States, we don’t have kings, but we have Presidents who have a lot of people buzzing around. We don’t have fools or jesters but janitors, maids, and butlers. Forest Whitaker is the titular butler who serves eight US Presidents throughout his career and sees the horror and beauty of his fellow man.

Selma • 2014

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If Rotten Tomato scores mean anything to you, then Selma’s 99% should mean a lot. Director Ava DuVernay crafted an elegant film based on a script by Paul Webb. The inspiration radiated by Martin Luther King enriches this movie. At the same time, the film allows the specter of the truth — how far we’ve got to go — haunt us from reality. Selma won Best Picture at the Oscars and is must-watch for fans of historical dramas.

Thanks for the dream, Dr. Martin Luther King.
We’ll keep working at making it more real.

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Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.
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