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Congress passed the Martin Luther King Day holiday to make sure that we remember the man and the movement. Both have been depicted in documentary films, but this list focuses on fictional movies about the civil rights movement and the Black experience, including some that describe people and events prior to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which are often viewed as the key events that catalyzed the modern movement.
“42” (2013) — The story of Jackie Robinson from his signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1945 to his historic 1947 rookie season when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, including the hardships he faced from racist teammates, fans, and others.
“10,000 Black Men Named George” (2002) — Depicts union activist A. Philip Randolph’s efforts to organize the Black porters of the Pullman Rail Company into a labor union in the 1920s. The outstanding cast includes Andre Braugher (as Randolph), Charles Dutton, Mario Van Peebles, Brock Peters, Ernestine Jackson, Kenneth McGregor, and Ardon Bass.
“The Butler” (2013) — As Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect his life and work, his wife (played by Oprah Winfrey), and his son, who gets swept up in the rising tide of Black radicalism and separatism.
“Fences” (2016) — In this film version of August Wilson’s play, a working-class African-American father (played by Denzel Washington) tries to raise his family in the Pittsburgh of the 1950s, while coming to terms with his troubled past, the racism he confronts every day, and his son’s hopes that the world is changing for the better.
“Freedom Song” (2006) — Describes the efforts of the young activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register voters and change minds in a small town in Mississippi (based on the actual town of McComb) in 1961, starring Danny Glover.
“Get on the Bus” (1996) — Fifteen disparate Black men from Los Angeles take a cross-country bus trip to participate in the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.. The film, directed by Spike Lee, portrays the different ways that each of them has dealt with racism in their lives, revealing their different views about politics, race, religion, and gender. The remarkable cast includes Charles Dutton, Andre Braugher, Roger Guenveur Smith, Bernie Mac, Albert Hall, Steve White, Isaiah Washington, Harry Lennix, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, De’Aundre Bonds, Hill Harper, and Gabriel Casseus, but the film’s highlight is Ossie Davis as an 80-year-old recovering alcoholic who lost his job and family, but found new meaning in life by embracing his African heritage. His stories about the African and African American experience help to ease tensions among the men on the bus.
“Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996) — Depicts the real-life efforts of a Mississippi district attorney (played by Alec Baldwin) and the widow (Whoopi Goldberg) of Medgar Evers to finally bring a white racist to justice for the 1963 murder of the civil rights leader.
“Green Book” (2018) — Set in 1962, the film is inspired by the true story of a tour of the Deep South by Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a Black classical and jazz pianist, who hires an Italian American night club bouncer, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), as his driver and bodyguard. The film is named for The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook for Black tourists to help them identify restaurants and hotels in the Jim Crow South. Some critics objected to the portrayal of Shirley as a politically and socially naïve snob alienated from mainstream Black culture, but others found the evolution of the two characters’ relationship a realistic depiction of two men learning from each other. The film’s representation of the harsh realities of Jim Crow segregation is one of its strongest features.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) — Tepid by today’s standards, the film’s all-star cast (Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn) depicts the anxieties of a liberal white middle class couple when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé.
“The Help” (2011) — Looks at life in the 1960s South from the perspective of African American maids, the daily hardships they endure, and their participation in the civil rights movement despite retaliation from their white employers, starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone
“In the Heat of the Night” (1967) — An African American police detective from Philadelphia, PA (played by Sidney Poitier) is asked to investigate a murder in a racially hostile Mississippi town under the guidance of a skeptical white sheriff (played by Rod Steiger).
“Intruder in the Dust” (1949) — Based on a William Faulkner novel, the film tells the story of Lucas Beauchamp (portrayed by the remarkable Juano Hernandez), a respectable and independent Black man, who is unjustly accused of the murder of white man Vincent Gowrie. Through the help of two teenage boys, the town lawyer and an elderly lady, he is able to prove his innocence.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) — Depicts the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant. The film reveals the Black Panthers’ appeal to Black Americans as well as the group’s internal tensions and efforts by law enforcement agencies to infiltrate and disrupt its efforts to organize the movement.
“The Long Walk Home” (1990) — Sissy Spacek and Whoopie Goldberg star in this remarkable depiction of the Montgomery bus boycott from participants’ perspective.
“Loving” (2016) — The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, whose challenge of their anti-miscegenation arrest for their marriage in Virginia led to a legal battle that would end at the Supreme Court.
“Malcolm X” (1992) – Denzel Washington stars as the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam, to his changing views about race and politics.
“Mississippi Burning” (1988) — Two white FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) with very different styles arrive in Mississippi and face hostility from most local residents when they investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists. It is based on a true story, although some critics have faulted the film for ignoring the FBI’s efforts under J. Edgar Hoover to disrupt the freedom movement.
“Mudbound” (2017) — Set in the rural American South during World War 2, the film tells the story of two families pitted against one another by Jim Crow segregation and culture, but still bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta. The movie follows the white McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry Jackson, his wife Laura struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. Meanwhile, Hap and Florence Jackson – Black sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations — struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face. The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, develop an uneasy friendship that challenges the Jim Crow rules while also being trapped by the rigid mores.
“No Way Out” (1950) — This was the 22-year old Sidney Poitier’s first film and his most explicitly anti-racism film. Richard Widmark portrays a white working class thug who resents being treated by a Black doctor (Poitier) in a public hospital. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis make their film debuts, although they are not credited in the cast list.
“Nothing But a Man” (1964) — A proud Black railroad worker (Ivan Dixon) tries to maintain his dignity in a racist small town near Birmingham, Alabama, after he marries the local preacher’s daughter (Abbey Lincoln).
“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) — To make some quick money, a disgraced former police officer (played by Ed Begley) decides to rob a bank. He recruits two desperate debt-burdened men — racist ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) and Black entertainer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to help him pull off the heist. Both are reluctant to participate but they need the money. They realize they must work together to get the job done, but tensions between Ingram and Slater get in the way, especially as they seek to evade the police after the robbery. Belafonte selected Abraham Polonsky to write the script, but the blacklisted writer had had to use a front. Polonsky’s screenwriting credit was restored in 1996 in his own name.
“One Potato, Two Potato” (1964) — A white divorcee (played by Barbara Cullen) falls in love with and marries a Black man (Bernie Hamilton), despite the objection of his parents. When her ex-husband sues for custody of her children, on the grounds that a racially mixed household is an improper place to raise the girl, the new husband contests his parental rights in court, fighting against a racist judge. This depiction of an inter-racial romance between two everyday people is more realistic and more poignant than “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” which came out three years later.
“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) — The film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s pathbreaking play, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee, describes the struggles of a Black family trying to survive in Chicago and striving for a better way of life. Trying to find a home in a white neighborhood, they confront the racist practices of the real estate industry and the prejudices of local homeowners.
“Selma” (2014) — A chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, focusing on his efforts to hold together the civil rights coalition (including his relationship with young Black activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC) and negotiate a working partnership with President Johnson. The film’s portrayal of the MLK-LBJ relationship is very different from its depiction in “All the Way,” a 2016 film starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, who spends his first year in office trying to pass the Civil Rights Act and gain the trust of King (portrayed by Anthony Mackie)
“To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962) — Based on Harper Lee’s novel, Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, who defends a Black man against an undeserved rape charge and his children against prejudice.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame“ (2012), co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of “We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style“ (2020), and co-author of two forthcoming books — “Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America” and “Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers’ Rights and American Empire — which will be published in April 2022.