7½ Essential Civil Rights Films

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seemed appropriate to focus on the important films of the Civil Rights Movement. While African-Americans were not the only group affected by racism and discrimination, the primary era of 1954-1968 were mostly focused on their attempts to end the racial divide that had existed in this country for centuries. Most of the films on this list are modern takes on the events of the period as the struggles of the 60’s have suddenly become extremely relevant in the current climate.

I Am Not Your Negro – This documentary about the history of racism in America, culminates in how similar the modern treatment of Black Americans is to their treatment in the post-Civil War South and during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. It just goes to show how little has truly changed.

In the Heat of the Night – Filmed at the height of the Movement, this film features Sidney Poitier as a Northern cop who is falsely accused of a crime and fights racism in the South as he tries to find the killer. While he doesn’t change the hearts or minds of everyone he meets, he did prove himself smarter than all of the bigoted White people who underestimated him.

Loving – Telling the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in Virginia in the 50’s, this film is focused on the federal law for interracial marriage and how it conflicted with state laws of the period. Ruth Negga gives an especially powerful performance as a woman who just wants to be with her husband, no matter his race.

Malcolm X – Spike Lee has never shied away from telling stories centered on race with his films representing some of the greatest works in American Cinema. Here he turns his camera onto the story of Malcolm X who represented one of the most important voices in the Civil Rights Movement and whose life was sacrificed before it saw victory.

Mississippi Burning – Death was an unfortunate cost of fighting injustice and while many of the deaths were ignored or even cheered, some were actually investigated. This film follows a pair of FBI agents looking into the disappearance of a trio of Civil Rights activists as their efforts become increasingly futile due to the lack of assistance from the local residents.

Remember the Titans – Some may argue that this is a football film more than anything else, but those people wouldn’t have seen it. This film takes place just after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and showcases exactly how difficult it was for two vastly different communities to put aside their differences and become a team.

Selma – No list would be complete without discussing Martin Luther King Jr., who was the most important voice of the period and whose untimely death brought things to a swift end. Selma refers to one of King’s most famous marches from Selma to Montgomery in protest of a Selma registrar’s refusal to allow Blacks to register to vote. An important film by an important black voice, this film represents a bleak time that is somehow more relevant than ever.

And now…the half:

To Kill a Mockingbird – Written during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, this film follows a young girl in the 30’s and while not explicitly about racism or civil rights, it tells the story of coming-of-age in the South. Through the eyes of its young protagonist, a black man is put on trial for raping a white woman and she is forced to confront the inevitability of racism.

And now, some superlatives for films about Civil Rights.

Best: Malcolm X

My Favorite: In the Heat of the Night

Most Underrated: I Am Not Your Negro

Honorable Mentions: Fences, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Help, Hidden Figures


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