10 Films About Human Rights Activists to Watch on MLK Day
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day when America remembers and honors the legacy of one of the world’s most famous civil rights activists. And while today is the perfect day to watch one of the many films that have been made about King and his struggle to secure civil rights for all Americans, another great way to celebrate King’s legacy is by learning about some of the many other important human rights activists from around the world. With that in mind, here are 10 films about some of the most important human rights activists that you can watch this MLK Day.
While the movies featured on this list were selected because of their subjects, they are ranked according to critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes, from lowest to highest, with awards information via IMDb.
10. The Lady (2012)
Luc Besson, who is probably better known for directing over-the-top action movies like Lucy, The Fifth Element, and La Femme Nikita, changed gears for this low-key biographical drama about Burmese pro-democracy and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi is well-known for her ongoing efforts to reform Myanmar’s oppressive military junta-controlled government and for her years of detention in the country while under house arrest.
The Lady focuses on Suu Kyi’s relationship with her late husband, Michael Aris and the long period of separation that they had to endure due to her activism. In the film, Michelle Yeoh plays Suu Kyi, while David Thewlis plays Aris. Despite its impressive heroine, The Lady currently only has a 33% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. However, the film garnered multiple awards from various international film festivals, including an International Human Rights Award for Besson from the Cinema for Peace organization.
9. Cesar Chavez (2014)
Michael Peña stars as the title character in this Diego Luna-directed biopic about the famed American labor leader and human rights activist. In order to improve working conditions for farm workers, Chavez employed a nonviolence strategy similar to what was successfully used by activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The film depicts several of the major nonviolent campaigns led by Chavez, as well as his personal struggle to maintain his family commitments.
Besides Peña, the film also stars America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, Rosario Dawson as fellow labor leader Dolores Huerta, and John Malkovich as an oppressive grape farm owner. Cesar Chavez currently has a 41% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes who noted that the filmmakers may have been “Too in awe of its subject’s great works to present him as a human being.”
8. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Renowned human rights activist and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, is the subject of this biopic directed by Justin Chadwick. The film tells the story of Mandela’s life from his rise as a political activist in apartheid-era South Africa, to his 27-year imprisonment and eventual election as the country’s president. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom stars Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Irish rock band U2 wrote a song for the film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
However, like many biopics about beloved leaders, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was criticized by some reviewers for idealizing its subject. The critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 59% approval rating and noted that, “It might be too respectful to truly soar, but there’s no denying Idris Elba’s impressive work in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — or the inspirational power of the life it depicts.”
7. Ali (2001)
The movie tells the story of Muhammad Ali and focuses on his professional boxing career, family life, and activism. The boxer refused to go to Vietnam and spoke out against the war. He also spoke openly about racism.
There has been some criticism that the movie doesn’t delve deep enough into his life, but it was positively received overall. The movie is certainly one of Will Smith’s best and he was nominated for an Oscar along with Jon Voight. The movie has a 67% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
6. Suffragette (2015)
The movie follows multiple activists who worked together in the suffragette movement as they were trying to get women the right to vote. Some of the characters are fictional, but based on real people. For example, Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts is fictional and the central character. However, Meryl Streep plays Emmaline Pankhurst, who was a real suffragette and founded The Women’s Social and Political Union.
Many found the story to be very compelling. The movie has a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Brendan Gleeson won Best Supporting Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. Although the film has some strong actors in its lineup, it didn’t get any Oscar love that year.
5. Gandhi (1982)
This Richard Attenborough-directed biopic about non-violent human rights activist and Indian independence movement leader, Mahatma Gandhi, stars Ben Kingsley in the title role. The film was an overwhelming critical success and won eight Academy Awards in 1983, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Besides being one of the most celebrated films about a human rights activist, Gandhi may also be one of the most exhaustive, with a running time of over three hours. Gandhi has maintained its status over the years and the film currently has an 87% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
4. Hunger (2009)
This movie tells the true story of Bobby Sands, the leader of a hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison to protest their treatment by British prison guards. The movie follows the last months of the Irish Republican Army activist’s life.
The movie was very highly regarded and director Steve McQueen won a British Academy Film award for Most Promising Newcomer. Hunger has an impressive 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Fassbender and McQueen are a powerful duo who worked together again on the Oscar winning, 12 Years a Slave.
3. Malcolm X (1992)
Directed by Spike Lee, Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington as the title character and Angela Bassett as Betty X. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X was a prominent human rights activist and civil rights leader who was assassinated during the turbulent 1960s. The film traces his life story from his troubled youth as a petty criminal, to his eventual conversion to Islam, and his rise as a prominent civil rights leader.
Malcolm X was a critical and commercial success and earned two Academy Awards nominations in 1993, including a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington. The film currently has a 91% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Milk (2008)
Gus Van Sant directed this critically acclaimed biographical film about human rights activist and America’s first openly gay elected politician, Harvey Milk. Milk stars Sean Penn in the title role and Josh Brolin as Dan White, the fellow politician who assassinated Milk.
The film tells the story of Milk’s political career from his early, unsuccessful campaigns in California, to his eventual election as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “From senior citizens to union workers, Harvey Milk changed the very nature of what it means to be a fighter for human rights and became, before his untimely death in 1978, a hero for all Americans,” says the official Milk website about the visionary civil rights leader.
Milk was hailed by critics and the film went on to win two Academy Awards in 2009, including a Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Sean Penn. The film currently has an impressive 94% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
1. Selma (2014)
Unlike the other titles on this list, this acclaimed film follows the struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his quest for voting rights for black citizens under the presidential leadership of Lyndon B. Johnson. The film follows the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by King, which occurred after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
David Oyelowo stars as King, and the film itself saw four Golden Globe nominations and a nod from the Academy for Best Picture. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Song. The film has a near-perfect 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics saying that, “Selma draws inspiration and dramatic power from the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. — but doesn’t ignore how far we remain from the ideals his work embodied.”
Additional reporting by Nicole Weaver and Evie Carrick.
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