Top Films to Watch on Martin Luther King Day

Safiya Ellis

Updated on:

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

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to reflect on the life and legacy of this iconic civil rights leader. One way to honor his memory is by watching films that explore his work, his impact, and the ongoing struggle for equality. Finding the right films to watch on Martin Luther King Day adds depth to the celebration. Through the lens of historical dramas and documentaries, viewers can glimpse the powerful moments and enduring struggles of the civil rights movement. These films not only commemorate the legacy of Dr. King but also educate and inspire action.

Selections such as “Selma” dive into Dr. King’s leadership during the pivotal Selma to Montgomery marches. They highlight the immense challenges faced by activists. Meanwhile, documentaries like “The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306” offer intimate accounts of the day Dr. King was assassinated, providing a unique perspective on his enduring impact.

For those looking to expand their understanding, movies like “Malcolm X” provide context about the era’s broader social movements. This approach brings different facets of history together, showing the complex and interwoven stories of leaders who fought for equality.

Honoring MLK’s Legacy Through Film

Selma (2014)

A gripping historical drama depicting the tumultuous events of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Dr. King. This film showcases the courage and resilience of those who fought for equality.

King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (1970)

This documentary offers a powerful look at Dr. King’s life and work, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his assassination. It features archival footage and speeches that capture the essence of his message.

Boycott (2001)

This HBO film tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. It highlights the leadership of Dr. King and the collective strength of the African American community.

King in the Wilderness (2018)

This HBO documentary focuses on the final years of Dr. King’s life, exploring his struggles and triumphs as he faced increasing opposition and violence. It offers a nuanced portrait of a complex and determined leader.

MLK/FBI (2020)

This eye-opening documentary delves into the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Dr. King, revealing the extent of the government’s efforts to undermine his movement. It raises important questions about power, justice, and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Film TitleYearDirectorKey Themes
Selma2014Ava DuVernayVoting rights, nonviolent protest, leadership
King: A Filmed Record…1970Ely LandauCivil Rights Movement, social justice, activism
Boycott2001Clark JohnsonMontgomery Bus Boycott, community organizing, perseverance
King in the Wilderness2018Peter KunhardtFinal years of MLK’s life, challenges faced, legacy
MLK/FBI2020Sam PollardFBI surveillance, government overreach, impact on Civil Rights Movement

Key Takeaways

  • Watching films on Martin Luther King Day honors his legacy.
  • Documentaries and dramas highlight key moments in civil rights history.
  • Movies about other leaders provide broader social context.

Historical Context and Civil Rights Movement

To appreciate the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s important to explore key moments in the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s enduring legacy. Two critical topics are the Selma marches and the broad influence of Martin Luther King Jr.

Selma and the Fight for Voting Rights

The Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 was a pivotal event in the fight for voting rights. Dr. King led a peaceful march, starting in Selma, Alabama. This march aimed to highlight racial injustice and the need for voting rights protection. Civil rights activists faced violence on “Bloody Sunday”. State troopers attacked protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

The incident drew national attention. Activism surged, and eventually, it pressured the federal government to act. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation was crucial for banning discriminatory voting practices. Selma’s impact remains a symbol of courage and determination in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and His Legacy

Martin Luther King Jr. left a profound legacy on the nation and the world. He advocated for nonviolence and equality. King’s speeches, like “I Have a Dream”, inspired millions and emphasized the importance of justice and civil rights. His leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other protests played a key role in challenging segregation laws.

King’s work led to significant changes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. His influence persisted beyond his assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s legacy lives on through commemorations like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, reminding us of the continued struggle for equality and justice.

Filmic Portrayals and Remembrances

These films showcase Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the civil rights movement. They include both biographical dramas and powerful documentaries.

Biographical and Historical Dramas

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, focuses on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. David Oyelowo stars as Dr. King. Tom Wilkinson plays President Lyndon B. Johnson. Carmen Ejogo portrays Coretta Scott King. The film earned critical acclaim and an Oscar for the song “Glory.”

All the Way features Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson. It explores Johnson’s first year in office post-JFK assassination and his dealings with Dr. King, played by Anthony Mackie. This film highlights the political battles behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One Night in Miami directed by Regina King, imagines a meeting between civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm X. This drama captures their discussions on civil rights and their roles in the movement.

Documentaries and Real-life Testimonies

King in the Wilderness is an HBO documentary that covers the final years of Dr. King’s life. It features interviews with friends and civil rights leaders. The film offers insights through archival footage and recordings, showing Dr. King’s fight against poverty and the Vietnam War.

MLK/FBI examines the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of King. Through declassified files and interviews, it reveals the extent of the FBI’s efforts to undermine him. The film provides a compelling look at the challenges Dr. King faced from government entities.

I Am MLK Jr., another engaging documentary, celebrates King’s impact through interviews with civil rights activists like Rev. Al Sharpton and Diane Nash. The film pays tribute to Dr. King’s legacy with insights from those who knew him and archival footage.