Movies to Watch to Honor Martin Luther King Jr: Essential Films for Reflection

Don Marley

Updated on:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd of demonstrators at the March on Washington

Exploring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. through film can be both educational and inspiring. Here are some key movies that honor his life and the Civil Rights Movement. These films span various genres, including documentaries, biopics, and dramas, providing a multi-faceted look at his profound impact.

A highly recommended watch is “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, which captures the pivotal 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. Additionally, the film “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis” serves as a compelling documentary covering King’s public life from 1955 to 1968. Another notable selection includes the miniseries “King,” which offers an in-depth portrayal of his journey.

These films not only celebrate King’s contributions but also serve as an important reminder of the Civil Rights Movement’s struggles and victories. By watching these movies, viewers can gain a deeper appreciation for the historical context and the enduring relevance of King’s message.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives a speech

Commemorating MLK Jr.: Films that Inspire and Educate

Cinematic Portrayals of Dr. King

  • Selma (2014): A powerful drama depicting the historic 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. King. David Oyelowo delivers a captivating performance as the civil rights leader.
  • Boycott (2001): This HBO film chronicles the Montgomery bus boycott, a pivotal event in the civil rights movement sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. Jeffrey Wright portrays a young Dr. King in this inspiring story.
  • King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970): This documentary compiles archival footage of Dr. King’s speeches, sermons, and protests, offering a comprehensive look at his life and legacy.

Documentaries Examining MLK’s Life and Impact

  • King in the Wilderness (2018): This documentary delves into the final years of Dr. King’s life, focusing on his struggles with the Vietnam War, poverty, and racism. It features interviews with those closest to him, providing a personal perspective on his legacy.
  • I Am MLK Jr. (2018): This documentary explores Dr. King’s life and work through interviews with activists, celebrities, and historians, highlighting his enduring impact on the fight for social justice.
  • MLK/FBI (2020): This film examines the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Dr. King, revealing the government’s efforts to undermine the civil rights movement.

Related Films Exploring Civil Rights and Social Justice

  • The Butler (2013): This historical drama follows the life of a White House butler who served eight presidents, witnessing key moments in the civil rights movement. Forest Whitaker delivers a moving performance as the butler, Cecil Gaines.
  • Hidden Figures (2016): This inspiring true story celebrates the unsung contributions of African American women mathematicians who played a crucial role in NASA’s early space program.
  • 13th (2016): This documentary examines the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the mass incarceration of African Americans. It argues that slavery has been perpetuated through the criminal justice system.

Films Inspired by MLK’s Message of Hope and Equality

  • Loving (2016): This drama tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose fight for their right to marry led to a landmark Supreme Court decision.
  • The Help (2011): This historical drama, set in 1960s Mississippi, follows the stories of African American maids working for white families. It explores themes of racism, segregation, and the power of storytelling.
  • Remember the Titans (2000): This sports drama tells the true story of a high school football team in Virginia that integrates in 1971. It highlights the challenges and triumphs of overcoming racial prejudice.

Table of Must-Watch Films for MLK Day

FilmGenreRelease YearFocus
SelmaDrama2014Voting rights marches
BoycottDrama2001Montgomery bus boycott
King: A Filmed Record…Documentary1970Dr. King’s speeches and protests
King in the WildernessDocumentary2018Final years of Dr. King’s life
I Am MLK Jr.Documentary2018Dr. King’s impact on social justice
MLK/FBIDocumentary2020FBI surveillance of Dr. King
The ButlerDrama2013White House butler witnessing civil rights movement
Hidden FiguresDrama2016African American women at NASA
13thDocumentary2016Mass incarceration and racial inequality
LovingDrama2016Interracial marriage and Supreme Court case
The HelpDrama2011African American maids in 1960s Mississippi
Remember the TitansDrama2000Integrated high school football team

Key Takeaways

  • Key movies like “Selma” and “King” honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
  • Documentaries offer insights into his public life and the Civil Rights Movement.
  • These films help viewers appreciate King’s message and historical impact.

Historical Context and Biopics

These biopics help viewers understand Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and key moments from the Civil Rights Movement. They showcase important events and remarkable performances.

Portrayals of MLK and Key Events

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, captures the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The film highlights the efforts behind the voting rights campaign that led to the Civil Rights Act. It also covers King’s interactions with President Lyndon B. Johnson and the FBI’s attempts to undermine him.

Another notable film is King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis. This documentary covers King’s life from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to his 1968 assassination. It offers a comprehensive view of King’s role in various key movements including the Selma marches. These films bring historical events to life, offering educational insights.

Significant Productions and Performances

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma is highly regarded. His performance is praised for capturing King’s voice, mannerisms, and passion. The film also featured the award-winning song “Glory” by Common and John Legend.

Television miniseries like King (1978) also provide deep insights. This series features Paul Winfield as King and covers his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. Viewers are taken through critical events, giving a detailed view of King’s dedication and struggles. These productions stand out for their historical accuracy and impactful storytelling.

Documentaries and Dramas Reflecting the Struggle

Films about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. range from documentaries that deeply explore his life and the civil rights movement to dramatized stories that bring historical events to life.

In-Depth Documentaries

Documentaries provide detailed accounts and real footage of events. “MLK/FBI” reveals how the FBI surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. and used declassified files to illustrate how the government targeted Black activists.

“King in the Wilderness” covers the last 18 months of Dr. King’s life, showing his struggles and achievements until his death in 1968. Documentaries like “Eyes on the Prize” also offer comprehensive coverage of the civil rights movement including major milestones and challenges activists faced during that era.

Another powerful documentary by Spike Lee is “4 Little Girls,” which focuses on the tragic bombing of a Birmingham church. This incident killed four young African-American girls, sparking nationwide outrage and highlighting the racism and violence of the time.

Dramatized Narratives and Biographical Films

Films such as “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, dramatize key events in Dr. King’s career, especially the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. “Selma” presents an emotional portrayal of the struggle and the determination of activists.

“The Butler,” featuring Forest Whitaker, provides a different view by showing the long fight for civil rights through the eyes of a White House butler who served during several presidencies. This film includes significant moments that reflect societal changes over decades.

For a look at those inspired by Dr. King, “The Rosa Parks Story” focuses on one woman’s pivotal role in the movement. It sheds light on how ordinary people took extraordinary steps to challenge segregation.

These films, whether factual or dramatized, offer valuable insights into the people and events that shaped the push for equality and justice.