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Films to watch for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr March on Washington August 28 1963
(Image credit: Dom Silke/Alamy)

A national holiday isn’t always a great time for reflection. In fact, it’s usually a time for tuning out, eating and drinking too much and generally forgetting the wider world. But, on the day designated to commemorate Martin Luther King Jnr., you could do worse than spending time digging into films that explore the man, his teachings and the world he tried to change.

As well as being an orator and charismatic storyteller Martin Luther King Jr. was at the heart of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, an activist working for meaningful change in the lives of Black Americans. It’s easy to dismiss these types of movies as too sad or too serious (or both), for holiday viewing. But there’s so much that’s inspiring and enlightening in Dr King’s philosophy that has relevance during our current challenging times, that we’d encourage you to take a closer look. We’ve pulled together a selection of films that cover a range of viewpoints. Some films are fictional, some tell the story of the man through his own words and documentary footage and some help build a picture of the turbulent struggles of the civil rights movements in the 60s. 

Despite Martin Luther King Jnr.'s untimely death, he left behind a legacy of activism and ideas that continue to guide us today. Sadly, more than 50 years later that legacy is under attack from people and structures that want to undermine the continuing fight for recognition, inclusion and equality. So, in the words of Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, “Let’s educate, advocate and activate.” We hope these suggestions will help you do just that.
#MLKDay2022

Selma (2014)

SELMA 2014 DAVID OYELOWO CARMEN EJOGO AVA DUVERNAY DIR MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

(Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy)

British actor David Oyelowo delivers a powerful turn as Dr. King in this film by Ava DuVernay that is tightly focused on King’s fight for voting rights and the brutality around the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches that led to the Voting Rights Act, 1965. The strong supporting cast includes Oprah Winfrey as Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper and Tim Roth as intimidating Alabama governor George Wallace. Selma was subject to some criticism that its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, as slow to support the civil rights movement, was unfair and incorrect — criticism that director DuVernay has robustly dismissed.

How to watch Selma: rent on Prime Video, YouTube TV and Google Play Movies (globally).

I Am Not Your Negro (2016) 

James Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, forms the basis for this documentary that uses Baldwin’s words (including narration by Samuel L. Jackson) married with interviews and archive footage. The film examines racism in America, the civil rights struggle and its leaders — including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr. It’s sobering but also completely riveting.

How to watch I Am Not Your Negro: included with Prime Video and Hulu subscriptions and free on Pluto TV (USA). To rent from Prime Video, Google Play Movies, YouTube TV (UK).

MLK/FBI (2021)

 An intelligent documentary from Sam Pollard that pieces together declassified files, archive footage, clips from movies and TV shows at the time, to build a story of how the FBI engaged in surveillance of Martin Luther King Jnr. and other civil rights leaders in an attempt to discredit them. Shockingly this campaign, against its own citizens, was fully authorized by the US government.

How to watch MLK/FBI: included with Hulu subscription (USA) and BFI Player (UK), rent on Prime Video, Google Play Movies (globally).

Malcolm X (1992)

DELROY LINDO DENZEL WASHINGTON MALCOLM X 1992

(Image credit: AF archive / Alamy )

 Spike Lee’s Oscars-nominated Malcolm X biopic, starring Denzel Washington, hasn’t lost any of its power 30 years on. It’s a deep (202 minutes) dive into the life and ideology of the controversial civil rights activist, made absolutely compelling by a rich, complex performance from Washington as the charismatic but divisive Nation of Islam leader. For many years  Malcolm X and MLK Jnr. were at opposite sides of the civil rights movement — at odds on the use of violence and other tactics to end discrimination — and, although Malcolm met Coretta Scott King several times, he and Dr. King only ever met once, in 1964, a year before Malcolm X was gunned down. 

How to watch Malcolm X: included with HBO Max subscription (USA) and Netflix (UK). Also available to rent on Prime Video, YouTube TV, Apple TV and Google Play (globally). 

King in the Wilderness (2018)

This 2018 documentary is a portrait of the last years of Dr. King’s life, from the events shown in Selma,1965, through to his assassination in 1968. It uses recollections of people who knew him to create a portrait of the man himself — with self-doubt, (all too real) fears about his personal safety who, nevertheless, continued to fight on for the causes that meant so much to him.

How to watch King in the Wilderness: included with HBO Max, Direct TV, Hulu subscriptions (USA). Also available to rent on Prime Video, YouTube TV and Google Play (globally).

One Night in Miami (2020)

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI 2020 Amazon Studios film From right Leslie Odom Jr Eli Goree and Aldis Hodge with Kingsley BenAdir as Malcolm X taking a photo of the group

(Image credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)

This is a fascinating, though fictionalized, re-creation of a night in 1964 when four African American men at the top of their fields met to chew the fat in a motel in Miami. What makes this story so remarkable is that the four men were boxer Mohammed Ali (still, at that time Cassius Clay), civil rights activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and NFL star, Jim Brown. Debut director Regina King (Southland, Watchmen) adapts this from the stage play of the same name, and at times it shows — it’s slightly sluggish — but the conversations (despite being imagined) are fascinating and the soundtrack, including Cooke’s “A change is gonna come” sets the context of the rapidly changing, feverish times perfectly.

How to watch One Night in Miami: included with Prime Video subscription (globally).

I head up the team at What to Watch, helping to grow our newest entertainment brand. I've worked in content strategy, production and audience development for leading film and TV companies for over 15 years. Always fascinated by digital trends, I'm currently obsessed with FilmTok. You can also find me extolling the virtues of Fringe, Smallville, rom-coms, Wong Kar Wei and Monty Don/Gardener's World.