Dr. Martin Luther King was an American icon. A masterful orator for the ages, his enduring optimism helped transform the United States of America. It was Dr. King’s tireless dedication to the Civil Rights Movement as its inspirational and courageous leader that helped to end segregation in America. Although Dr. King, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, is mostly known for his civil rights work in the South and for the key role he played in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his legacy does not stop there.
Dr. King believed that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He possessed a remarkable ability to mobilize others. He delivered rousing sermons, delivered impassioned speeches at rallies, led perilous marches, and utilized his popularity to gain national attention to fight injustice. He took his campaign for equality national. He advocated for better living conditions for Black residents in Chicago and fought against segregation in Chicago’s public schools.
In the final years of his life, Dr. King was arguably more popular than ever before. He spoke out against racism, capitalism, police brutality and economic inequality. He condemned the Vietnam War and led his first anti-war march in 1967. The following year, he launched the Poor People's Campaign, a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for the poor in America. The night before his assassination, he delivered what would become his final speech to a crowd of sanitation workers in Memphis. Dr. King never got to see the culmination of his vision come to life; however, his influence has lived on, and will surely continue to live on for generations to come. To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we put together a collection of films to watch to honor his profoundly important legacy.
Easily one of the more popular silver screen depictions of Dr. King, Selma chronicles the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. David Oyelowo plays Dr. King in the biographical drama detailing the harrowing fight for equality that led to the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Helmed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, Selma first premiered in 2014, and was re-released the following year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. Selma won an Oscar for Best Original Song for the motivational anthem “Glory” by Common and John Legend.
Featuring a collection of rare, archival footage of Dr. King’s speeches and protests, this Oscar-nominated documentary features the likes of Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Joanne Woodward, and other Hollywood icons. Directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the 3 hour doc from these two acclaimed filmmakers follows Dr. King’s rise as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, and the cultivation of his nonviolent campaign for economic equality.
Jeffrey Wright slips into MLK’s shoes in the made-for-TV drama Boycott, which chronicles the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. The screenplay for the film was adapted from the book Daybreak of Freedom, and went on to win a Peabody Award for its refusal to let history “slip into the past.” Terrence Howard, CCH Pounder, Carmen Ejogo, Reg E. Cathey, and Brent Jennings are among the cast.
King in the Wilderness gives a chilling glimpse into the last years of Dr. King’s life. The HBO documentary attempts to take the audience inside Dr. King’s state of mind while covering the roughly two years prior to his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. From dealing with near constant FBI surveillance to the growing opposition to his commitment to nonviolence, King in the Wilderness paints a sobering picture of the civil rights leader’s heroic journey. The film incorporates private and public moments with Dr. King, along with behind-the-scenes footage, archival photographs, phone conversations recorded by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and personal testimonials from Dr. King’s close confidants.
Delving deeper into the bureau’s sinister plot to destroy the civil rights leader in a larger attempt to derail the Civil Rights Movement, MLK/FBI is based on previously sealed FBI files proving the federal institution’s efforts to ruin his reputation. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled King “the most dangerous negro in America” and vowed to use “every resource to destroy him.” For nearly a decade, King was subject to wiretaps, blackmail, bombings, and death threats. Although Dr. King is usually shown as a powerful orator and fearless leader in the documentary, MLK/FBI shows some of his vulnerable moments. The film’s director, Sam Pollard, was one of the co-directors behind the Oscar-nominated Eyes on the Prize documentary series, which chronicled the American Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965. Pollard also produced, along with Spike Lee, the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, Lee’s Oscar-nominated film about the notorious racial terrorist bombing of a Black church during the Civil Rights Movement.
OK, not a movie but an essential watch. Eyes on the Prize is an excellent series on the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the most comprehensive. The 14-episode PBS documentary series originally premiered in 1987 with six episodes. An additional eight episodes debuted on the network in 1990. Eyes on the Prize spans from 1954-1985, with appearances from prominent figures, including Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Kwame Ture, a prominent organizer in the Civil Rights Movement; and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow and the mother of their four children. Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, a follow-up to the groundbreaking documentary, premiered on HBO Max in 2021.
Rosa Parks was perhaps one of the most popular figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and her subsequent arrest, fueled the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted nearly an entire year. The Rosa Parks Story offers a firsthand account of Parks’ brave act of defiance that aided in the dismantling of segregation. Angela Bassett stars as the late activist in the made-for-TV film, which also features Cicely Tyson, Peter Francis, Tonea Stewart, and Dexter King as MLK.
I Am MLK Jr. celebrates Dr. King’s legacy as told through the activists, athletes, and actors that he inspired. The documentary features archival recordings of Dr. King, and inside stories from Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and other freedom fighters within his inner circle. Additionally, I Am MLK Jr. explores Dr. King’s lasting impact and features heartfelt testimonials from successful Black Americans from a variety of professions. Actor Nick Cannon, NBA star Carmelo Anthony, political commentator Van Jones, andRev. Al Sharpton are among those featured, along with other celebrities and activists.
On September 15, 1963, KKK members bombed Black parishioners at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four Black girls were killed in the blast: May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson. Dr. King traveled to Montgomery after what became one of the many heinous incidents of racial violence in America. He didn’t stop at simply making an appearance; he delivered the eulogy at the girls’ funeral and assisted in organizing the protest. The HBO documentary 4 Little Girls was directed by Spike Lee and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.
Adapted from the novel and sharing its name, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a film which depicts real-life events in America being experienced by the story’s fictional character. The made-for-TV film, starring Cicely Tyson, follows Jane Pittman’s fictitious journey through the end of slavery to surviving Jim Crow to joining the Civil Rights Movement (as a centenarian). Tyson’s Emmy-winning performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was one of the most memorable performances of her illustrious career. In the film, the acting legend portrays Jane Pittman from the age of 23 all the way up to the age of 110.