Every year on January 16th, we celebrate the birth and life and tragic death of Civil Rights leader and orator, Martin Luther King Jr. King helped transform the cultural and political landscape of the United States through tireless activism, calls for peaceful protests and impassioned, powerful speeches calling for equality and justice.
On April 4th, 1968—after years of marches, dozens of arrests, and international fame—King was shot and killed while standing on his hotel room balcony in Memphis, TN. He was 39 years old. (I write this post realizing that it is the first time I’ve written about King since I became older than he was at his death).
Since I write about TV shows and movies and video games and that sort of thing, I figured one way I could pay homage to King’s life and legacy was to pass on some movie suggestions for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is a national holiday. Schools are closed. Everyone is happy and excited to get the day off. But it’s important to remember also that this was a day bought and paid for in blood and sacrifice, and that King’s work is far from done.
Not all of the following films are specifically about the Civil Rights era. Some go back in time to the Civil War. Others take place in modern times. But all of them focus on the same themes of equality, racism and the struggle for a better and more just world. They’re also all entertaining, well-made films with great writing and performances.
Based on a true story, Green Book stars Viggo Mortensen as Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, the Italian American driver of African American pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. The title is based on the guide book The Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor Hugo Green which helped direct black motorists to friendly establishments. It’s a terrific character drama about these two men’s journey together, and the enduring friendship they build.
Another true story, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the brilliant young Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI’s investigation of his movement, using petty criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). It’s a harrowing story of betrayal and injustice and a fresh look at the Black Panthers and their role in the Civil Rights movement.
Loosely based on the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, Mississippi Burning is a crime thriller starring Gene Hackman, Francis McDormand and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents navigating the hostile community of fictional Jessup County, Mississippi. The investigation focuses on the Ku Klux Klan and paints a grim enough picture of the widespread racism rampant in the South at the time.
Glory takes place during the Civil War and focuses on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union army. The all-star cast includes Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes as soldiers in the regiment. A powerful movie about one of the darkest chapters in American history. (This film made my 15 Best Movies To Watch On Veteran’s Day list as well).
Widely regarded as Gregory Peck’s best film, To Kill A Mockingbird is based on the classic novel by Harper Lee. Landing in theaters during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, the film was a smash hit with critics and audiences alike, earning over six times its budget in the box office, and winning three Academy Awards. The story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl, To Kill A Mockingbird is profound, tragic and one of the most important films of the 20th century.
Spike Lee’s dark comedy-thriller is based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. It’s the story of the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs, CO police department set in the 1970s. John David Washington plays Stallworth, who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK along with the help of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). This one is equal parts tense and funny, and one of my favorite Spike Lee films.
Speaking of Spike Lee, one of the director’s best films is Malcolm X, a film based on the 1965 book The Autobiography Of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Denzel Washington plays the titular role and pretty much secures his place as one of the best actors of the modern era in this picture, which details the life of Malcolm X, his conversion to Nation of Islam, and his eventual turn toward a more open-minded version of Islam before his tragic assassination in 1965.
A more fantastical entry in our list, Quentin Tarantino’s first (and best) foray into the Western genre tells the tale of Django (Jamie Foxx) and his adventure with dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) through the pre-Civil War South. The film’s villain, the cruel plantation owner,Calvin J. Candie, is played by Leonardo DeCaprio in one of his rare bad guy roles. As with all things Tarantino, this is a very R-rated film, but definitely worth your time. Like Inglorious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the final act is all about bloody catharsis.
Veering into the psychological horror genre, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut tells a weird and unsettling tale of modern racism and terror that will leave you shocked and appalled in the end. Daniel Kaluuya is—once again—truly phenomenal here, and is joined by a stellar cast in one of my favorite modern horror flicks. Don’t worry, this isn’t a gorefest, though it has its violent moments. It’s a smart, intense social critique that will absolutely blow your mind.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a movie about the man himself. Selma tells the story of the voting rights marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and Dr. King’s efforts to get president Lyndon B. Johnson to push federal legislation allowing black citizens the right to vote. A story of peaceful protest, violent reaction, tumultuous times filled with death threats, violence, bombings and the promise of a better world, Selma is a powerful historical film that should top every MLK Day list.