This year marks the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which first was observed Jan. 20, 1986. Signed into law by President Reagan, the national holiday commemorates the man who did more for the civil rights movement than any private citizen in U.S. history.
Use the day with your family to educate and enlighten yourselves and celebrate King’s life and legacy. Instead of “binge watching” the latest craze on streaming TV, download or rent a film that gets many things right about King — and about the civil rights movement. Some of the movies on this list relate to King indirectly, and artistic license may be taken in Hollywood regarding certain historical details.
But all nine of these films have something timeless to say about the importance of civil rights and the ills of racial prejudice.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
A cinematic treasure, To Kill a Mockingbird expertly adapts Harper Lee’s bestselling novel, which predated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by four years. In both the film and the book, white teen Mayella Ewell commits the taboo act of kissing Tom Robinson, a black man. After getting caught, she avoids scorn by accusing Robinson of rape, prompting vigilante “justice” in the form of a lynch mob.
Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his role as the noble attorney Atticus Finch. Finch defends Robinson, who is clearly innocent, but the all-white jury will have none of it.
Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic that MLK himself referenced on more than one occasion, including in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
A film that critic Leonard Maltin calls a “marvelous social thriller” that “hasn’t aged one bit,” In the Heat of the Night was a surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar at the 1968 Academy Awards ceremonies, which were delayed two days because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and subsequent funeral.
The movie, which beat such formidable contenders as Cool Hand Luke and The Graduate, and which spawned a TV series two decades later, is about a black city slicker (Sidney Poitier) who helps a Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a murder.
They learn to respect and admire one another as they work on the case, but director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, working from a novel by John Ball, handle the sticky subject of race relations without resorting to clichés and syrupy sentimentality.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
“1964. When America was at war with itself.”
The tagline for and title of Mississippi Burning concisely evoke the visceral nature of the film, which was inspired by the grisly murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Blacks are brutalized, crosses burn, churches are torched and characters use the “N” word. The film compresses racial hatred and its resultant behavior for dramatic effect, but, as any reporter who covered the region during the time will tell you, these were the realities of the rural Deep South during the civil rights era.
Visually striking, Mississippi Burning won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.
The Long Walk Home (1990)
Inspired by the MLK-led Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-1956, The Long Walk Home stars Sissy Spacek as an affluent Southerner and Whoopie Goldberg as her hardworking maid. The “walk” of the title refers to the fact that African-Americans, in the wake of Rosa Parks’ heroic act of civil disobedience, begin walking to and from work instead of taking public transportation, putting the city-owned bus company in a financial bind.
The film ably speaks on feminism as well as racism, and it has inspired casting. Dwight Schultz, who was Barclay on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Murdock on The A-Team, plays Spacek’s unsympathetic husband, and Mary Steenburgen, whom modern TV audiences know from Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Last Man on Earth, acts as narrator.
Malcolm X (1992)
Most everyone can agree that Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational figure who did more for race relations in the U.S. than just about any other historical figure. More controversial is the legacy of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who inspired blacks to fight racism “by any means necessary,” including violence.
Directed by Spike Lee, Malcolm X takes viewers through the life of the divisive demagogue in riveting fashion, from his troubled childhood (his father was murdered and his mother was institutionalized) to his stint in prison (for burglary) to his religious conversion as a mouthpiece for Elijah Muhammad, to his assassination in 1965.
A commanding, laser-focused Denzel Washington plays the title character to Oscar-nominated near-perfection, turning in the performance of a lifetime.
Freedom on My Mind (1994)
Shining a well-deserved spotlight on Freedom Summer, aka the Mississippi Summer Project, Freedom on My Mind won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where it made its debut. The movie uses rare archival footage and new interviews with civil rights activists (including Victoria Gray Adams, founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) to tell the complex, dramatic and still-relevant story of the battle to register black voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.
Produced and directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, Freedom on My Mind was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but it lost to another great film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.
The Loving Story (2011)
Anti-miscegenation laws were a hot topic during the civil rights era, culminating in Loving v. Virginia (1967), a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that all laws banning “mixed marriages” were unconstitutional. The case centered on Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who got married in 1958, when it was not only unpopular to do so but illegal in many states.
Directed by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story is about the brave couple’s love for one another, their arrest shortly after they were married and their refusal to bow to Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act. Young people who accept interracial marriage (and gay marriage for that matter) instinctually and without historical context will be shocked by this gripping HBO documentary, which is why they should watch it.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Eugene Allen was an African-American man who worked for the White House as waiter and butler from 1952 to 1986. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is loosely based on the life of Allen, who in the film is called Cecil Gaines, played beautifully by Forest Whitaker. (Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria.)
Gaines is shown serving eight presidents, including integration advocate Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Arkansas to ensure the safety of the “Little Rock Nine” entering Central High School. The critically acclaimed movie also touches on the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The fight for the non-suppression of black voters reached a critical point in Alabama on March 7, 1965, when state troopers and deputies used clubs, whips and tear gas on approximately 600 peaceful protesters attempting to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march, led by Martin Luther King Jr., received lots of TV coverage, creating a ripple of outrage through the country and helping lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, the critically acclaimed Selma chronicles the conflict with passion, cinematic flair and compelling characters, including a flawed but noble King, played with grace, dignity and a sense of humor by David Oyelowo. In short, Selma effectively dramatizes an important historical event that remains relevant today.