How do we remember our heroes? Who was Martin Luther King Jr., really? What did he do? What was it all about?
Finally, there are now more Americans alive who were born after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. than before, and the living participants in and witnesses to the Civil Rights Era are fading away. His life and those times now seem remote. In these times, it sometimes seems that no progress has been made, that we are slipping back into violence, prejudice, and disenfranchisement. The oncoming trainwreck of Donald Trump, a psycho notorious for his hate of black people, means that education, awareness, and action on the preservation of civil rights are more important than ever.
But -- 70 years ago, it was worse. America was a nightmare for minorities. The Civil Rights movement was a stirring and rare example of successful, positive social change – a peaceful revolution that worked, democracy in action winning out over prejudice and hate.
At the head of it all was Dr. King, who even at that time had the aura of a living saint about him. We regarded him as the ultimate hero, the principled man of God whose eloquence and moral fortitude forced bad men to back down, like some spiritual gunslinger armed with only soul power. He was no certain, sanctimonious leader, but an ordinary and flawed man with extraordinary courage, perhaps the greatest communicator in American history. In a time that was simultaneously scared and terrifying, he was a modern Moses.
What Martin Luther King do we celebrate now? The films below try their best to remind us who he really was, and what he and millions of ordinary people accomplished.
11. King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet/Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1970)
The first film bio of King was made for a unique one-night-only fundraising screening nationwide. The movie, built from newsreel footage, fell out of circulation for years, even after being added to the National Film Registry. It’s really a tribute film, studded with the highlights from King’s life, ending with 20 mournful minutes of his funeral footage.
10. Eyes on the Prize (Henry Hampton, producer; 1987/1990)
This 14-hour, meticulous epic is a definitive history of the black struggle from 1954 through 1985. Its depth, detail, and extensive use of primary sources make it an exemplary historical document.
9. Freedom on My Mind (Connie Field/Marilyn Mulder, 1994)
The virtue of this Oscar-nominated documentary, which focuses on the 1961 “Freedom Summer” voter registration project in Mississippi, is its emphasis on the volunteer front-line organizers of both races that did the grunt work during that dangerous time when activists Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were murdered.
8. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)
This heartbreaking Oscar-nominated documentary proved that Spike Lee was just solid on non-fiction projects as he was with his narrative features. The intimate scale of the piece, focusing on the murders of a quartet of Sunday school students on September 15, 1963, puts the human cost of the civil-rights struggle at the forefront.
7. Citizen King (Orlando Bagwell/Noland Walker, 2004)
Part of the prestigious American Experience series of historical portraits, an excellent one-hour summary of King’s life – a good place to start.
6. King (PBS, 2008)
A two-hour look at King’s life, hosted by Tom Brokaw for the History Channel. It includes rare conversations with King’s children, as well as contemporary perspectives on King’s legacy.
5. Freedom Riders (Stanley Nelson, 2010)
An excellent close-up examination of the fight to integrate public transportation in the South. In the summer of 1961, volunteers trained in non-violence ran the gauntlet of beatings, death threats, and arrests.
4. The March (John Akofrah, 2013)
Another model examination of a specific event – in this case, the March on Washington, which culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
3. King (Abby Mann, 1978)
The first dramatized version of King’s life, a TV mini-series, features the great Paul Winfield a the civil rights leader, supported by an all-star cast that includes Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Al Freeman Jr., and many more. Winfield is capable of showing a vulnerable and human King, exploring the fear and worry that dogged his until his death.
2. Boycott (Clark Johnson, 2001)
The story of the event that started it all – the Montgomery bus boycott. Jeffrey Wright plays King here with perhaps too much impassity; his King seems intimidated and terse when not on the pulpit (which could have been the case – King was only 26 years old when his activism began). Where the movie excels is how it shows how a social-action movement is put together, and overcomes obstacles. Anyone planning a non-violent revolution will find the blueprint here.
1. Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
A stirring film about the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that’s at its best when showing us the inner and intimate life of the protagonists, King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who find their marriage under attack as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attempts to drive them apart by sending them audio tapes of King’s spied-upon infidelities. The movie falls down when the famous talking heads fill the screen – LBJ was not as much of an opponent of King’s as he is portrayed here, and George Wallace was cleverer than intolerant goober Tim Roth gives us.
Director Ava DuVernay gave a great response to those who questioned Selma’s historical accuracy, words that applicable to any attempt to remember the man and the struggle. “Bottom line is, folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it . . . Let it come alive for yourself.”