Screening Room

For the King: Movies to inspire passion & protest for justice this Martin Luther King Day

With the advent of another election year, the racial, gender and sexual injustice of the Trump administration still rampant, and the overture of Trump’s impeachment trial all at hand, life can get more than a little overwhelming. Thank goodness, then, for the movies, which can help distract us from the news…or help us channel our anger into something productive.

Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired us to do the same. The movies listed here commemorate the struggle for equality in America by reminding viewers of the sweetness of each progressive step toward the American promise, and just how far our nation still has to go to fulfill Dr. King’s dream of true equality. While you may sit on the couch watching these, they will no doubt inspire you to head out into the world to make the world a better place.

So, get ready to email your representatives. Get ready to shed a few tears. And most of all, get ready to take to the streets. All these films call us to action to fight for our future.


David Oyelowo plays the good Dr. King in this film, the breakout from director Ava DuVernay. The film dramatizes the lead up to the historic march on Selma, led by King, and also explores the lives of those that made the journey to attend. For all its stirring crowd scenes, though, the best moments in the movie come in quiet, domestic scenes between Dr. King and Coretta Scott King (very well played by Carmen Ejogo) that explores the tenderness—and tensions—of their marriage.

Iron Jawed Angels

Oscar-winners Hillary Swank and Anjelica Huston star in this HBO film about feminists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who helped galvanize the women’s suffrage movement and earn women the right to vote. Paul and Burns don’t get as much press as other suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony. This movie finally records their harrowing struggle for posterity.

When We Rise

This ABC miniseries which traces the queer rights movement in San Francisco from the time of Harvey Milk up to the days of marriage equality got something of a raw deal when it debuted in 2017 for some weird casting choices, and for focusing too monomaniacally on one city. That’s a shame: Though flawed, When We Rise does at least hit the high (and low) points in the history of equality. At its best, it captures the harrowing emotions in times of despair…and triumph.

Separate But Equal

Two screen legends anchor this film about the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case: Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster. Lancaster plays lawyer John Davis, while Poitier captures all the fire of Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who fought to end school segregation and eventually ended up on the Supreme Court himself. Full of electrifying speechifying and courtroom drama, the movie also helps explain the legal maneuvering that goes into prosecuting a major case.

Related: Oscar-Nominated AIDS Doc “How To Survive A Plague” To Become ABC Mini-Series

The Rosa Parks Story

The ever-wonderful Angela Bassett nabs the title role in this 2002 telefilm about the civil rights icon. Few actresses posses Bassett’s luminous charisma, and her performance captures the steely resolve of the real woman. Fun fact: Martin Luther King Jr.’s real son, Dexter Scott King, takes on the role of his dad.

Malcolm X

Speaking of Angela Bassett, the actress also gives one of her best performances in this drama, a biopic of the title character. It helps, of course, that the movie matches her with Denzel Washington as Malcolm. Washington gives the performance of his career here, as does director Spike Lee, who crafts his finest film to date. That folks, says something.


No list of civil rights movies would be complete (in our view, anyway) without including Milk, the terrific drama about the cut-short live of the LGBTQ rights leader. Sean Penn took home an Oscar for his work, as did Dustin Lance Black for his screenplay. Watch with Kleenex on hand; no matter how many times we’ve seen it, we still get weepy.


Gay actor Paul Winfield, an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, took on the role of Martin Luther King in this 1978 miniseries which scored him some of the best notice of his career. Honorary Oscar winner Cecily Tyson matches him well as Coretta. Even if the style and format of the movie feel hopelessly dated in places, the two leads still bring it to life. That, and Winfield’s uncanny resemblance to the real thing gives the movie undying power.


Boycott tells the story of Dr. King’s other great public demonstration, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jeffery Wright slips into the role with his ample talent, while Carmen Ejogo steps into the role of Coretta (yes, she played it twice). Hardly the best film about King, Boycott nevertheless retells an important chapter of the good doctor’s legacy.

Whose Streets?

The shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO , incited riots in the streets and helped launch the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. Whose Streets? examines the community organizers that helped start the movement, including the LGBTQ activists who helped start a national conversation about police brutality.

How to Survive a Plague

For more gut-wrenching memories of the specter of AIDS and the government inaction that invited an epidemic, look no further than How to Survive a Plague. David France’s epic chronicle of the crisis in New York and the rise of ACT UP leaves viewers stunned and enraged. With indispensable interviews with key activists and witnesses, raw archival footage and a sense of righteous anger, How to Survive a Plague is one of the best docs about the AIDS crisis. Have Kleenex on hand: footage of gay men casting the ashes of their dead friends and lovers on the White House lawn makes us bawl every time.

V for Vendetta

The cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel caused a stir in 2005, galvanizing anti-Bush forces furious over the Iraq War and curbing of civil liberties. It since has become the defining film of the protest hacker group Anonymous, which continues to target perceived tyranny today. In Moore’s dystopian vision, a totalitarian government has impressed harsh rule on the UK, only to meet with incredible resistance from a masked vigilante known as V. Actor Hugo Weaving makes V into a spellbinding character, though the film belongs to Natalie Portman as Evie, a woman swept up in V’s anarchic protests. Portman gives arguably her best performance as an everywoman moved to fight back against oppression. The movie also has a moving subplot about Evie’s friendship with a gay man (played by the great Stephen Fry) who must live his life in the shadows thanks to anti-gay violence.


No, not the embarrassing, white-washed outing from Roland Emmerich in 2015. This is the real, criminally overlooked narrative film from 1995, the last film from queer British director Nigel Finch before his death from AIDS. Stonewall recreates the days leading up to the famed Stonewall Riots, which kicked off the LGBT rights movement. Finch intercuts the narrative portion with interviews from witnesses to the riots, who recall the atmosphere and events that helped ignite the movement. Though historians quibble with a few of the film’s insinuations (did Judy Garland’s death really play a role in the riots?), Stonewall features a multi-ethnic cast that represents just about every facet of the LGBT subculture. Stonewall has its shortcomings, but as a reminder of the inception of the queer rights movement, it still packs a wallop.

Note: This article contains portions of earlier Queerty posts.

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