5 Movies To Enjoy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day To Learn About His Work and The Civil Rights Movement

On January 15, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 91-years-old. King was assassinated in April 1968 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennesse. His death left millions heartbroken but the groundwork he did in the Civil Rights Movement would leave a lasting legacy.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1964 | Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

The road to making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day an official federal holiday was long and fraught and didn’t take place until nearly 20 years after the idea was introduced to Congress. King’s supporters fought for the well-deserved honor. We celebrate him today by doing acts of service in our respective communities. For those whose service projects end early, here are five films that you can enjoy in recognition of King’s work. 

The Long Walk Home (1990)

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Future E.G.O.T. winner, Whoopi Goldberg, stars as Odessa Carter – the maid of a well-to-do white family in Birmingham, Alabama. Carter joins the fight for Civil Rights by choosing to walk miles to and from work to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. Initially, her boss, Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek), doesn’t understand her plight but she drives Carter to and from work a few days a week to ensure she gets to work on time. Thompson eventually supports the movement in its entirety and shows her support by carpooling other black workers. As Thompson’s empathy grows, she receives grief from the white community, including her husband.

Four Little Girls (1997)

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This powerful Spike Lee-directed documentary chronicles the devastating aftermath of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that left four young African-American girls dead. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church as they were changing into their choir robes on a Sunday morning. The killings sparked the push for Civil Rights legislation and brought outrage over horrible acts as such inspired by racism in the South. The documentary features first-hand accounts from parents, friends, and living relatives of each of the four girls. Also explored are the subsequent trials of the men responsible for the bombing who the community fought to be held accountable. 

The Help (2011)

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Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer do a superb job as two black maids who work in the South during the intense Civil Rights era. Despite the unfair conditions and threats of punishment, both women bravely decide to detail their lives to a young white writer who is penning an exposé on the Jim Crow South. Emma Stone plays the writer, who audiences discover was raised by a black maid, which drives her need to change the inequality in her town. Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

The Butler (2013)

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Based on a true story, Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, a native of the deep south who migrates to Washington, D.C. and finds work as a White House butler. He works there for 34 years and severs several presidential administrations with varying viewpoints. One of Gaine’s sons (David Oyelowo) becomes active in the Civil Rights Movement and grows distant with his father, whom he begins to resent for what he views as a passive personality. His commitment to his job also causes contention between him and his wife, played by Oprah Winfrey.

Selma (2014)

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David Oyelowo returns for another Civil Rights infused project in the Ava DuVernay directed period piece, Selma. Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr. as he leads in the fight for African-American suffrage. Despite violent opposition and the hesitation of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to make black voting legal, King and his followers pressed forward on an unprecedented non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery. Their efforts resulted in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma was critically acclaimed and won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Song from the motion picture soundtrack for its lead song “Glory,” which featured John Legend and Common.

Enjoy this service day and make it count as MLK Jr. would want!