Let’s take a moment on this special day to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. In fact, let’s take at least a few hours and immerse ourselves not just in his legacy but in the multiple liberation movements he inspired.
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. 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.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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 dispair…and triumph.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.