The Civil Rights Movement in America did not finish with Dr. King's work. It is an ongoing process that we're still struggling with to this day. Over the course of several decades, many films and TV shows have worked to capture the emotions and messages of equality. 

We got together as a staff and talked with many of our contributing writers about the best film and TV shows that captured not only the movement, but also the ongoing message about civil rights in America. 

We've put together a list we think is a great jumping-off point for anyone interested in learning more about race, equality, and America. 

Check it out!

Selma (2014), Narrative Feature directed by Ava DuVernay 

This week we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, which was taken away far too soon by an angry white man with a gun. This film follows his pursuit for equal voting rights, centered on the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The film stars David Oyelow as the late Dr. King and follows the true story of the famous activist embarking on a dangerous three-month campaign to secure equal voting rights for Black Americans, culminating in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Critic Anna Hornaday wrote about the film in The Washington Post, saying, "Selma carries viewers along on a tide of breathtaking events so assuredly that they never drown in the details or the despair, but instead are left buoyed. The civil rights movement and its heroes aren’t artifacts from the distant past, but messengers sent on an urgent mission for today. There are several reasons to see Selma—for its virtuosity and scale, scope, and sheer beauty. But then there are its lessons, which have to do with history, but also today: Selma invites viewers to heed its story, meditate on its implications, and allow those images once again to change our hearts and minds.

Freedom on My Mind (1994), Documentary 

The Academy Award-nominated Freedom On My Mind is the first film to chronicle, in-depth, the story of Freedom Summer. It vividly tells the complex and compelling history of the Mississippi voter registration struggles of 1961 to 1964: the interracial nature of the campaign, the tensions and conflicts, the fears and hopes. It is the story of youthful idealism and shared vision, of a generation who believed in and fought for the principles of democracy.

​In 1961 Mississippi was a virtual Black enclave within the United States. Everything is segregated. There are virtually no Black voters. Bob Moses enters the state, and the Voter Registration Project begins. The first Black farmer who attempts to register is fatally shot by a Mississippi State Representative. But four years later, the registration is open. By 1990, Mississippi had more elected Black officials than any other state in the union.

Freedom On My Mind dramatically interweaves powerful personal interviews, rare archival film and television footage, authentic Mississippi Delta blues, and vibrant Movement gospel songs while emphasizing the strategic brilliance of Mississippi's young, Black organizers.

Rent it here

Hidden Figures (2016), Narrative Feature directed by Theodore Melfi

Released back in 2016, Hidden Figures was a breath of fresh air in a tumultuous year. It combines a few of my favorite things—NASA and the space race, strong female leads, and Janelle Monáe, who gives a quiet and powerful performance here. Inspirational without being cloying, balancing the emotional and tense with entertaining and straightforward storytelling, Hidden Figures reveals the contributions of three brilliant Black employees at NASA (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) who helped send John Glenn into orbit. I’d call this one family-friendly and upbeat enough for kids, especially ones interested in STEM fields. 


Critic Odie Henderson wrote about the film, "Hopefully, Hidden Figures will inspire women and people of color (and hell, men too) with its gentle assertion that there’s nothing unusual nor odd about people besides white men being good at math. But my secret fantasy is that this feel-good film will be a huge hit at the box office. Under its great acting, bouncy Pharrell score, and message is a film that’s as geeked out about math as a superhero film is about its comic book origins."

Rent it here.

Eyes on the Prize (1987), Documentary Series

I think this should be required viewing in every American high school. It's a PBS masterpiece directed by a cadre of diverse voices. Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the civil rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life and embodied a struggle whose reverberations continue to be felt today. Winner of numerous Emmy Awards, a George Foster Peabody Award, an International Documentary Award, and a Television Critics Association Award. 

Covering the period from 1954 until the mid-1980s, we follow the story as contemporary interviews and historical footage trace the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. Julian Bond, the political leader, and civil rights activist, narrates this shaking story of being Black in America. 

Rent it here

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Narrative Feature directed by Robert Mulligan

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee of the same name, To Kill a Mockingbird is an all-time classic film in its own right. The screenplay for the film was written by legendary writer Horton Foote, and it stars Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, and Robert Duvall. Both the book and movie are loaded with accolades. It’s one of the earliest instances of American mainstream culture addressing issues of racism and racial injustice in the South head-on, pulling no punches.

The book is considered required reading, and the movie required viewing. The history of civil rights in film arguably begins with To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, portrayed by Peck, is considered one of the greatest heroes put to film, of his performance Harper Lee said, “When he played Atticus Finch, he had played himself, and time has told all of us something more: when he played himself, he touched the world.”

Of course, the film is not without its flaws or dated elements. It’s clearly a white perspective on the issues at hand, told from that of the child, Scout, a sort of stand-in for Lee herself. This opens it up to certain problems, but taken and understood in full context, the film has a great deal to offer to say the least. 

Rent it here

42 (2013), Narrative Feature directed by Brian Helgeland

42 stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player in the major leagues. The film offers a modern take on Robinson’s challenges, both internal and external, as he faced an onslaught of hate, discrimination, tolerance, violence, and racism as he entered the major leagues. 

Boseman’s performance is the best thing about this film. He manages to convey the complexity and depth of Robinson’s journey. This film belongs on the list because it’s easily lost on current generations just how impossible a task Robinson undertook when he agreed to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His ability to overcome those obstacles, to exist and thrive despite them, is a testament to his courage and his strength of character. 

Get Out (2017), Narrative Feature directed by Jordan Peele

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. It centers around a young Black man and his Caucasian girlfriend as they make their way to her parents’ 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. 

Critic Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times, "... 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 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."

Rent it here. 

Malcolm X (1992), Narrative Feature directed by Spike Lee 

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's 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."

Rent it here. 

I Am Not Your Negro (1992), Documentary directed by Raoul Peck 

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was meant to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time of Baldwin's death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck made this stirring documentary theorizing what would come next. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin's reminiscences of civil rights leaders. 

Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal said of the movie, "The film is unsparing as history and enthralling as biography. It's an evocation of a passionate soul in a tumultuous era, a film that uses Baldwin’s spoken words, and his notes for an unfinished book, to illuminate the struggle for civil rights." America is the way it is because of people's hard work to make things better, but how much better could our country be if their lives were never cut short? 

Rent it here.  

What are some of your favorites from this list and beyond? Tell us in the comments.