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Best Movies About the Civil Rights Movement

By David Young · February 21, 2023

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Remembering the past — especially to avoid repeating mistakes and celebrating our successes is important. One such success was the Civil Rights Movement, and one such mistake was the time that led up to it. Institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination were just a few of the issues that were the focus of the movement — and thanks to some great movies, we can capture what life was like in an effort to not forget the dangers of the past.

If you want to learn about social change and see a deep dive into the problems America has faced regarding civil rights, check out the spectacular Civil Rights movies below, shedding light on shameful spots in our history and the change that came after.

Till (2022)

Life in the 1950s was often devoid of justice, especially for Black people of the era. That much was entirely true for Emmett Till, whose murder was unspeakably brutal and swept under the rug by Mississippi officials. That is, until his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, became a premier voice in the Civil Rights Movement in response. In Till, Mamie’s point of view paints the life of her son before his death, as well as the aftermath of Emmett’s murder. She even points out to her son the dangers of the South. Still, when Emmett returns from Mississippi, it’s in a casket. His end is so gruesome that she insists on showing the world — teaching America an early lesson about the inexcusable violence that ran rampant.

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Hidden Figures (2016)

Success in space was a team effort, but many of those who lent a hand had become forgotten. Hidden Figures is as much about that forgotten state as it is about the African-American women who lent their services to the country in the space race: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Their contributions proved vital to the effort to place an American in orbit during the space race, and in 1962, they succeeded. This movie explores race and sex segregation across workplaces, schools, and public places — as well as discrimination through the eyes of this trio at a critical time in the country.

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BlackKKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee is known for his commentary in the film, taking on issues like institutional racism with a blend of dark humor and acute, honest imagery. BlackKKlansman is yet more proof of this proclivity, as he proceeds to point to the events of Black policeman Ron Stallworth’s own account of his mole operation in the 1970s. His own identity was used to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and his work led to the exposure and recording of the white supremacist group’s agenda in the local chapter near Colorado Springs. Lee’s film depicts this with some additional liberties that showcase the prevalence of racial tension within the police department — an issue that still has dire inward and outward consequences even today.

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Read More: 5 Trademarks of a Spike Lee Script

Green Book (2018)

The differences between Dr. Don Shirley and his escort driver, Tony Lip, couldn’t be an understatement. The world-class pianist hired Tony to protect him in the Deep South. Though the two don’t see eye-to-eye at first, they soon develop some solidarity after facing dangers like discrimination, racial assaults, and even the pressures of a sundown town in Mississippi. Green Book, named after the motorist guide for Black travelers in the South during segregation, explores these historical situations for a relationship that began to transcend the usual trust between employers and employees of different races in the ’60s.

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

The life of Cecil Gaines is a storied account, from being violently taken as a servant on a plantation to his butler duties in the White House over the years. The Butler shows his life as he progresses through administrations, seeing events like Eisenhower’s school desegregation, Kennedy’s response to the brutal treatment in Birmingham, and even the Black Panthers’ rise to violent ends. Witnessing the nation change over the decades, Cecil himself changes as well, and his recall of world events like the Vietnam War and Apartheid showcase history’s failings and the changes made to respond — creating for audiences an invaluable perspective on life before and after the Civil Rights Movement began gathering steam.

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Read More: Untold Stories: History Through the Eyes of Black Filmmakers

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

No one can really know what to expect from having to “meet the parents.” It’s already nerve-wracking enough. But one Hollywood classic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, stars iconic Sidney Poitier in that role with the awkwardness that is born of more than just simple jitters. He plays Dr. John Prentice, a Black widower in love with a white woman. Made as a movie contemporary with the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, there are questions abound as John and Joanna, his fiancée, face their parents respectively regarding their interracial coupling. This film offers perspective to the future that John and Joanna see ahead — and answers some of America’s lingering questions about the change it was facing at the time.

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Yet another film about police infiltration on our list of Civil Rights movies, Judas and the Black Messiah, depicts the historical operation regarding the Black Panther Party members based in Illinois. William O’Neal becomes an informant of party leader Fred Hampton, learning about the ties he has to gangs, militias, and the community at large. Hampton’s attempts to build a radical social change for his people are shown through the eyes of this infiltrator. As he dives deeper, O’Neal feeds this information to the FBI in exchange for his own freedom and money, in the end having a critical hand in the changemaker’s unexpected demise at the hands of police.

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Selma (2014)

A list like this wouldn’t be complete without a film highlighting one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma follows the events that unfolded in “desegregated” Alabama when King and his followers marched from Selma to Montgomery to fight to make it easier for Blacks to register to vote. This pivotal moment in history resulted in the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lydon B. Johnson.

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Read More: Selma: Filmmaking that Deserves Glory

Whether it’s the aftermath of social change or the first voices to start calling out for that change, you’ll find that history has much truth to offer. As these Civil Rights movies above depict, there are numerous ideas, perspectives, and communities to consider when remembering the Civil Rights Movement — and what it meant for the country as a whole. If you’re looking to write about social change, desperation, injustice, or hope, read these films and get a feel for the way it’s done by each one. You’ll undoubtedly learn something while honoring and remembering those who acted for change from our curated list of Civil Rights movies.

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