Most Inspiring Civil Rights Movies That Everyone Should Watch

March 08, 2022 9 min read

Top 8 Best Civil Rights Movies That Everyone Should Watch 

Civil Rights Movies first emerged in the 1960s as soon as the Civil Rights Movement started itself. Then filmmakers were far enough away from this groundbreaking movement to capture it with new insight. The film about historical moments in the American black civil rights movement half a century ago is a living lesson that has never ceased to be meaningful. 

They tell powerful stories of struggle and triumph, bias and inequality — real-life issues that elicit tears or a fist pumped in the air when the good guys win. Immerse yourself in the historical turning points recreated in the Civil Rights movies listed below to understand our past, present, and future. 

Grab a bag of popcorn and put your feet up to enjoy our list! (Spoil Alert!!) 

Table of Contents

1. To Kill A Mockingbird 

civil rights movies

English: "Copyright © 1963 by Universal Pictures Co., Inc.", Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Year of manufacture: 1962 
  • Film studio: Universal 
  • Directed by: Robert Mulligan 
  • Actors: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Art Design, Best Picture Nominations 

Adapted from one of the most famous novels of American literature, To Kill a Mocking Bird revolves around the story of a little girl Scout and her father, Atticus Finch. Atticus was a lawyer and he defended a black man who was wrongly convicted. Because of this, Atticus received many objections and detractors, but he remained determined to the end. 

Adapted from the novel of the same name by female writer Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird explores the theme of difference and the ability to accept difference within a community. From the first-person narration of the main character, Scout, director Robert Mulligan takes viewers to the American South in the 1930s of the 20th century. It was the beginning of the era of slavery, of apartheid. The harsh race marked a dark period, the most crisis in American history. 

The implicit rules about status and social status are conveyed by director Robert Mulligan in a clever and evocative narrative style. In particular, the intention of using old film color (white-black) instead of a color film like the rising trend in the 1960s was also a completely convincing choice of his. It is each film that will be the most naked accusation for a dark truth about the racism of America once. 

To a certain extent, justice spoke up when taking his life to pay for the life of an honest person who had to die unjustly. However, the real picture of American society in that crisis period is not so bright when the power is still in the hands of the gunman and the privileged with the color of the owner. The film won 3 Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Art Design, and was nominated for Best Picture. 

2. Malcolm X 

Civil Rights Movies

Malcolm X 1992, Public domain, IMDb

  • Year of manufacture: 1992 
  • Film studio: Narrative Feature 
  • Directed by: Spike Lee 
  • Actors: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Nominations 

When Warner Brothers originally decided they wanted to make a movie about Malcolm X, they didn't have a director aboard. They had a script and interviewed a lot of people for the job, but public outcry caused them to look at Black directors to tell the story, and eventually, they landed on Spike Lee. Lee came in ready to tell the tale, not watered down by white voices and determined to do something unique. 

He's quoted as saying, "I'm directing this movie and I rewrote the script, and I'm an artist and there are just no two ways around it: this film about Malcolm X is going to be my vision of Malcolm X. But it's not like I'm sitting atop a mountain saying, 'Screw everyone, this is the Malcolm I see.' I've done the research, I've talked to the people who were there." 

Critical reception for the film was staggering, with many still viewing it as Lee's best film. Roger Ebert ranked the film No. 1 on his Top 10 list for 1992 and described the film as "one of the great screen biographies, celebrating the sweep of an American life that bottomed out in prison before its hero reinvented himself."

3. 12 Years a Slave 

Civil Rights Movies

12 Years a Slave PosterPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Year of manufacture: 2013 
  • Film studio: Fox Searchlight 
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen 
  • Actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Nominations 

The film is adapted from the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup - a black American living in New York who was kidnapped and brought down to the Southern states as a slave. The incident, which dates back to 1841, just before the American Civil War, shook the country. Audiences loved the movie for its authenticity and heartwarming story. 

When the film 12 Years a Slave was made, the film immediately received positive reviews from critics as well as the audience. Most appreciated that the film was too real and sympathetic for Solomon. 12 Years a Slave even became the favorite movie of current US president Barack Obama, bringing him to tears. The film won Best Picture of the Year at the 2013 Academy Awards, after beating out formidable competitors like Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, becoming the first black film to do so. 

4. Lee Daniels’ The Butler 

Civil Rights Movies

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Public domain, IMDb

  • Year of manufacture: 2013 
  • Film studio: Universal 
  • Directed by: Lee Daniel 
  • Actors: Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Forest Whitaker 
  • Awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress 

Lee Daniels' The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker), a devoted butler at the White House. During more than 3 decades of work, Cecil Gains has served 8 US presidents. 

Lee Daniels' The Butler has many similarities with Forrest Gump (1994). The main character Cecil Gains worked in the White House through 8 presidents, so he almost witnessed or experienced the most shocking events in modern American society (President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the war in Vietnam, etc.). However, the issue that the film mainly deals with is still racial issues.  

In Lee Daniels' The Butler, there are many characters (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Lawson), famous political events related to the process of fighting for equal rights for people of color. It can be said that the film is like a history lesson in pictures. 

And like Robert Zemekis' Forrest Gump, director Lee Daniels chose to let the character narrate the story on his own. In some scenes connecting parts or segments is a dialogue by Cecil Gains. Of course, with a separate theme, Lee Daniels' The Butler does not have the variety, wit, and meaning of life like Forrest Gump. 

Besides the main character Cecil Grains, the screenplay also develops several supporting characters such as his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), son Louis. The father-son, husband-wife relationship between them is relatively well built. 

Lee Daniels' The Butler was very popular in the North American market in 2013. The production budget was only 30 million USD, but after being released in theaters, the film earned 116.6 million USD. Although it has not reached the level of a masterpiece, Lee Daniels' The Butler is still worth watching. 

5. Selma 

Civil Rights Movies

SelmaPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Year of manufacture: 2014 
  • Film studio: Plan B Entertainment 
  • Directed by: Ava DuVernay 
  • Actors: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Original Score Song, Nominated for Best Picture 

Selma is a historical film, about Martin Luther King Jr. - one of the greatest African-American historical figures. He is the initiator of the movement of nonviolent struggle, reclaiming equal rights for people of color, with the symbol of "Colored Lord", having a strong influence on American democracy.  

The trip, which lasted from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, aimed to claim the right to vote for African-Americans in Selma, who then made up 57% of the city's population but less than 1% of whom were registered to have voting right. Selma was also nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars but unfortunately did not win. 

Playing the role of Martin Luther King is a British black actor - David Oyelowo. The actor born in 1976 who played the main role in The Butler, although not as tall as a real-life activist, still makes viewers see his charisma through his natural and transformative acting. 

The most explosive moments of David Oyelowo are the practice speech scenes, making viewers unable to help but remember Martin Luther King once on the list of the greatest speakers in American history. In the great line of protesters being shot and killed, the film cleverly intertwines fictional doubles and real documentary photos taken in 1965 on the real "Bloody Sunday". 

This movie also moved viewers when using the song "Glory" at the right time. When the civil rights activist and the group went out into the street in the early morning sun to prepare their final speech, the meaningful lyrics conveying hope for truth and glory resounded solemnly like the national anthem. 

6. Get Out 

Civil Rights Movies

Get OutPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Year of manufacture: 2017 
  • Film studio: Universal 
  • Directed by: Jordan Peele 
  • Actors: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture Nominations, Best Actor Nominations 

Director Jordan Peele's work has incorporated racism in the US into the story of the debut of his girlfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). It centers around a young Black man and his Caucasian girlfriend as they make their way to her parent's home for the first time together. What ensues are a series of microaggressions that lead to something more sinister than anyone could have ever imagined. Get Out won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2017. 

Genre movies can be about so much more, and Jordan Peele's movie is about the dangers of the "good white liberal" through a horror film lens. Years after the Civil Rights Movement, so many people wanted to say equality has been achieved, but this movie pulls back a much darker curtain. It covers serious topics such as racism, slavery, and cultural appropriation.  

Part of what makes Get Out both exciting and genuinely unsettling is how real life keeps asserting itself, scene after scene. Our monsters, Mr. Peele reminds us, are at times as familiar as the neighborhood watch. One person’s fiction, after all, is another’s a true-life horror story. For his part, Chris, separated existentially, chromatically, and every other way, spends so much time putting the white world at ease that he can’t recognize the threat coming for him. 

7. BlacKkKlansman (KKK Conclave) 

Civil Rights Movies

BlacKkKlansmanPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Year of manufacture: 2018 
  • Film studio: Focus Features 
  • Directed by: Spike Lee 
  • Actors: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier 
  • Oscar Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture Nominations, Best Director Nominations 

At the 2019 Oscars, besides Green Book, there is another nominee for the category of Best Picture, also with a black theme, BlackKklansman. The film is adapted from a true story about the black police officer Ron Stallworth infiltrating the "white supremacy" organization KKK. 

Experiencing many difficulties, dangers, and even threats to life, Ron Stallworth finally discovered and stopped the conspiracy of this organization. Racism in the US has been the main theme that Spike Lee has pursued throughout his film career since the 1980s. 

In the Oscar nominations "Best Picture" in 2019, BlacKkKlansman was noticed by many thanks to the name of veteran director Spike Lee. The work is based on real events in the 1970s recounted in the memoirs of Ron Stallworth. As gripping as a "cat and mouse" crime drama, BlackKKlansman is a humorous piece of political parody and revives the radical racist theme of the "3K" party to address the problem that persists in American society. 

BlacKkKlansman is more than just a two-hour movie with a compelling story and ironic laughs. The statement "Make America Great Again" or "America First" of the KKK members in the film is reminiscent of President Trump. They deal with the burning issues of modern America, from violence, racism to hatred, neo-fascism, white nationalism with a powerful look, uncompromising, and always filled with witty mockery. 

8. Harriet 

Civil Rights Movies

Harriet, Public domain, IMDb

  • Year of manufacture: 2019 
  • Film studio: Universal 
  • Directed by: Kasi Lemmons 
  • Actors: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae, Aria Brooks, Clarke Peters, Leslie Odom Jr, Vanessa Bell Calloway 
  • Awards: Oscar nominations, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild Awards. 

The film is the extraordinary story of Harriet Tubman - the woman who escaped slavery and became one of America's greatest heroes, whose courage and unyielding ingenuity liberated thousands of people and changed the course of history. 

You may have learned a bit about Harriet Tubman in your high school history lessons — the heroic slave-turned-abolitionist whose dangerous missions led to the liberation of hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad. But you’ve never seen her like this. Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet in this powerful biographical film that chronicles her escape from slavery and her harrowing journey to help others escape their shackles. 

(to be continued)

 


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