The top 10 movies to watch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Every January 16, we celebrate the birth and life and tragic death of civil rights leader and orator, Martin Luther King Jr. King helped transform the cultural and political landscape of the United States through tireless activism, calls for peaceful protests, and impassioned, forceful speeches calling for equality and justice.

On April 4, 1968 – after years of marches, dozens of arrests and international fame – King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, TN. He was 39 years old. (I’m writing this entry realizing that it’s the first time I’ve written about King since I became older than he was at his death).

Since I write about TV shows and movies and video games and things like that, I thought one way to honor King’s life and legacy was to pass along some movie suggestions for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of this year. This is a national holiday. Schools are closed. Everyone is happy and excited to get the day off. But it’s also important to remember that this was a day paid for and paid for in blood and sacrifice, and King’s work is far from done.

Not all of the subsequent films are specifically about the civil rights era. Some go back in time to the Civil War. Others take place in modern times. But they all focus on the same themes as equality, racism and the struggle for a better and more just world. All are also entertaining, well-made films with great writing and performances.

10. Green Paper (2018)

Based on a true story, Green book stars Viggo Mortensen as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, the Italian-American driver of African-American pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. The title is based on the guide The green book of the negro motorist published by Victor Hugo Green, who helped direct black motorists to friendly establishments. It’s a great character drama about these two men’s journey together and the lasting friendship they build.

9. Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Another true story, Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of brilliant young Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI’s investigation into his movement, with the help of petty criminal William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). It’s a gripping tale of betrayal and injustice and a fresh take on the Black Panthers and their role in the civil rights movement.

I rated this movie on my devilish Substack newsletter.

8. Mississippi Burning (1988)

Loosely based on the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists, Mississippi fires is a crime thriller starring Gene Hackman, Francis McDormand and Willem Dafoe as two FBI agents navigating the hostile community of fictional Jessup County, Mississippi. Focusing on the Ku Klux Klan, the investigation paints a grim enough picture of the widespread racism that was prevalent in the South at the time.

7. Glory (1989)

Glory is set during the Civil War and focuses on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army. The all-star cast includes Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes as soldiers in the regiment. A powerful film about one of the darkest chapters in American history. (This movie also made it to my list of 15 Best Movies to Watch on Veterans Day).

6. Killing a Mockingbird (1962)

Widely regarded as Gregory Peck’s best film, To kill a mockingbird is based on the classic novel by Harper Lee. The film, which hit theaters during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, was a huge success with critics and audiences alike, earning more than six times its budget at the box office and winning three Academy Awards. The story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. To kill a mockingbird is profound, tragic and one of the most important films of the 20th century.

5. BlackKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee’s dark comedy-thriller is based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. It is the story of the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs, CO, police department, set in the 1970s. John David Washington plays Stallworth, who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK with his Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). This one is equal parts edgy and funny, and one of my favorite Spike Lee movies.

4. Malcolm X (1992)

Speaking of Spike Lee, one of the director’s best films is Malcolm X, a movie based on the 1965 book The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Denzel Washington plays the titular role, just about securing his place as one of the best actors of modern times in this picture, which chronicles the life of Malcolm X, his conversion to the Nation of Islam and his eventual turn to a more open world. – witty version of Islam before his tragic assassination in 1965.

3. Django Unleashed (2012)

A more fantastic entry in our list, Quentin Tarantino’s first (and best) foray into the Western genre tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) and his adventure with dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) through the pre-Civil War South. The film’s villain, the brutal plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie, is played by Leonardo DeCaprio in one of his rare villain roles. As with anything Tarantino related, this is a very R-rated film, but well worth it. Like Inglorious Bastards and Once upon a time in Hollywood, the final act is all about bloody catharsis.

2. Go Away (2017)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut delves into the psychological horror genre, telling a weird and disturbing tale of modern day racism and terror that will leave you shocked and appalled. Daniel Kaluuya is – again – truly phenomenal here, joined by an amazing cast in one of my favorite modern horror movies. Don’t worry, this isn’t gorefest, although it has its violent moments. It’s a smart, intense social critique that will absolutely blow your mind.

1. Selma (2014)

This list wouldn’t be complete without a movie about the man himself. Selma tells the story of the 1965 Selma, Alabama voting rights marches and Dr. King to get President Lyndon B. Johnson to push through federal legislation giving black citizens the right to vote. A story of peaceful protest, violent reaction, tumultuous times full of death threats, violence, bombings and the promise of a better world. Selma is a powerful historical film that should be at the top of any MLK Day list.


Those are just ten of the many movies, both classic and new. What did I miss here? What recommendations do you have? Let me know Twitter or Facebook.

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