Picture from Movies for Martin Luther King Day

Movies for Martin Luther King Day

As issues of racism, police violence, and voter suppression take more space in the public square, learning about Martin Luther King and the context of his work can be illuminating. A new documentary about King and the harassment he underwent from law enforcement, entitled MLK/FBI, debuts on January 15th. In the meantime, there are plenty of films you can watch with your teens to help them understand King’s world and the legacy of the civil rights movement.

Selma tells the story of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Protesting the police murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, black marchers run a gauntlet of violence as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This film is a story of courage and dignity and introduces viewers to Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders. FuboTV, DirecTV, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: B+

Malcolm X While Martin Luther King preached non-violent responses to oppression, Malcolm X advocated a more assertive strategy for Black Americans. A leader in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s charismatic speaking style gave him influence beyond Black Muslim circles. This film features an inspired performance by Denzel Washington in the lead role. HBO Max, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: A-

Mississippi Burning Loosely based on the real life 1964 murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, this movie tells the tale of two FBI agents tasked with catching the culprits and follows their journey into the darkness of racism, brutality, and corruption. The production is violent and disturbing but could be suitable for older teens with an interest in history. Cinemax, DirecTV, Sling, Digital on Demand Restricted, Grade: C

The Help Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, this flawlessly acted film examines the world of the Jim Crow South through the eyes of Black maids and the White women who employ them. Netflix, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: A

Green Book When acclaimed Black pianist Dr. Don Shirley decides to take a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962, he hires a White chauffeur who can act as a bodyguard. This Oscar-winning story of friendship, dignity, and transformation also examines the cruel inequities of the era. FuboTV, Showtime, DirecTV, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: B-

Loving It’s 1958 and, like two dozen other states, the Commonwealth of Virginia forbids interracial marriages. So when a White man named Richard Loving decides to marry his Black girlfriend, Mildred, the couple go to Washington D.C. for the wedding. This isn’t the end of it, though. After Virginia police raid their home and throw the pregnant woman in jail, the couple flee the state. Mildred, however, is homesick, so with the help of the ACLU, they launch a lawsuit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Netflix, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: A-

Hidden Figures Racism and sexism are a toxic combination, as three women discover while they work to help put Americans on the moon. Hired as “computers” – skilled mathematicians who perform the calculations needed for space flight – the women battle entrenched prejudice as they struggle to complete their challenging tasks, adapt to evolving technology, and assert their right to equal treatment. With messages that stress the value of hard work and education and the equality and dignity of all, this is an excellent choice for families with children. Disney+, FuboTV, Digital on Demand PG, Grade: A

The Best of Enemies Based on a true story, this film explores racial tolerance, forgiveness, and unlikely friendships. It tells the tale of Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist, and CP Ellis, head of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. When the Black elementary school in Durham, North Carolina catches fire in the early 1970s, the two community leaders are forced to work together to find solutions in a charrette – a formal arbitration system where stakeholders unite to solve problems. FuboTV, Showtime, Roku, DirecTV, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: A-

John Lewis: Good Trouble This moving documentary depicts the legacy of this remarkable American, from his days as a civil rights activist alongside Martin Luther King and other notable leaders to his 33 years of service in Congress. It provides a first person view of the Civil Rights Movement and is a call to everyone to work towards a more just and equal world. The film is an excellent choice for tweens and teens. Hoopla, HBO Max, Sling, Digital on Demand PG, Grade: A+

We like to believe that the days of racial discrimination ended with the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, but, as filmmakers remind us, Black Americans still face significant challenges.

The Hate U Give When Starr sees a police officer shoot a Black teenager at a traffic stop she has to choose whether to testify or stay silent. This is a superbly acted film with strong themes of racial pride, self-respect, and family unity. It’s also a good introduction to issues of race and policing. FuboTV, Sling, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: B

Burden Set in the mid-1990s, Burden clearly demonstrates that racial hatred still breeds violence. It tells the story of Mike Burden, a young member of the Ku Klux Klan who leaves the group at the urging of his girlfriend. The Klan doesn’t let go easily and Burden is soon destitute, only to be found and supported by a Black minister. Despite its negative content, this movie has strong messages of forgiveness, change, and compassion that are beneficial for older teen viewers. Flix, Digital on Demand Restricted, Grade: C+

Suppressed: The Fight to Vote This documentary takes a close-up look at the 2018 election in Georgia and examines how the closure of polling stations, voter ID laws, voter roll purges, delayed processing of voter registrations and other strategies stripped thousands of Black citizens of their right to vote. Free on YouTube Unrated, Grade: A

Slaying the Dragon Gerrymandering uses rigged electoral boundaries to reduce the power of the vote for partisan gain. Because this disproportionately effects the voting power of minorities, it’s a civil rights issue for our day. Hulu, Digital on Demand PG-13, Grade: A

Note: The term “digital on demand” refers to movies that can be rented on streaming platforms. To determine which platforms these movies are available on, you can check out Reel Good or Just Watch. (Just Watch is particularly useful for viewers outside the United States as it provides information for dozens of countries.)

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…