Civil Rights Movies

9 Must-Watch Civil Rights Movies for Historical Insight

Cinema serves as a mirror to our society, reflecting not just the good but also the bad, the ugly, and the scars left by our collective experiences.

While it can be tough to look back, remembering, preserving, and challenging our history is crucial. One of the most significant chapters captured on film is the Civil Rights Movement.

This period confronted many critical issues, from institutionalized racial segregation to widespread discrimination.

There are numerous powerful films that encapsulate the ideals of the movement, perfectly illustrating the struggles it sought to overcome.

If you’re looking to understand and reflect on the impact of this historic movement in America, here are 9 essential Civil Rights movies you should watch.

9. Paris Is Burning (1990) – Directed by Jennie Livingston

“Paris Is Burning” is a groundbreaking documentary that introduced mainstream audiences to ballroom culture, where Black and Latinx communities find expression and belonging through drag, dance, and fashion competitions.

The film compassionately captures the complex realities faced by its subjects, highlighting the intersectionality of queer people of color as they navigate racism, poverty, homelessness, and violence. With its unapologetic authenticity, “Paris Is Burning” challenges social norms and urges viewers to cultivate compassion for individuals living their truths.

8. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Directed by Stanley Kramer, Written by William Rose

Just months after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision legalized interracial marriage across the U.S., Stanley Kramer’s film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” offered a direct commentary on racial prejudices.

The story centers on Joey (Katharine Houghton), a white woman, introducing her Black fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), to her liberal parents.

The film addresses real-world issues faced by Black Americans, including microaggressions, stereotypes, and cultural appropriation.

7. A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Directed by Daniel Petrie, Written by Lorraine Hansberry

This adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway play—the first Broadway play written by a Black woman—portrays the everyday struggles and aspirations of a Black American family in the 1950s.

“A Raisin in the Sun” follows a family trying to decide what to do with the insurance payment they expect to receive.

Facing racial discrimination and limited opportunities, the film sparked conversations about pivotal issues relevant to the Civil Rights Movement, resonating with a diverse audience.

6. Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) – Directed by Shaka King, Written by Will Berson and Shaka King

The story of the Black Panther Party is often missing from mainstream media narratives or portrayed solely through a lens of violence and radicalism. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is crucial in illuminating their multifaceted struggle for self-determination and community empowerment, providing a broader and more nuanced understanding.

The film tells the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, and his betrayal by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant. It highlights the Black Panthers’ appeal to Black Americans and freedom fighters, while also exploring the group’s internal tensions and the efforts by law enforcement to disband the organization.

5. Selma (2014) – Directed by Ava DuVernay, Written by Paul Webb

Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is a pivotal film about the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers as they march from Selma to Montgomery.

This march significantly influenced President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The film reignited discussions about the ongoing struggles for voting rights and racial equality in the U.S., highlighting the sacrifices made by key figures in the movement.

Beyond its powerful narrative, “Selma” is a landmark in American cinema.

It is the first biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. and marked a historic moment when DuVernay became the first Black woman to direct a Best Picture nominated film.

4. Get Out (2017) – Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” marked a significant moment in American cinema.

The film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he meets his girlfriend’s white family, only to uncover a horrifying truth. By the time Chris realizes he’s not safe, it’s too late.

“Get Out” presents a nightmarish portrayal of racism in America, highlighting the obsession with Black bodies and the immoral desire to maintain racial dominance.

The film explores growing racial tensions in the U.S. and comments on police violence, as seen in a deleted ending originally written by Peele.

3. Malcolm X (1992) Directed by Spike Lee, Written by Arnold Perl and Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s epic biopic “Malcolm X” delves into the life of the legendary Civil Rights activist, highlighting what set his struggle for racial equality apart from other leaders in the movement.

The film traces Malcolm X’s journey from his early life to his assassination in 1965.

“Malcolm X” is a significant film in American cinema for its historical context, its portrayal of a complex and polarizing character, and its reflection on his profound impact on American history.

The film sparked important conversations about race, justice, and the reevaluation of Malcolm X’s legacy.

2. Fences (2016) – Directed by Denzel Washington, Written by August Wilson

Adapted from August Wilson’s play, “Fences” is a raw exploration of themes and experiences connected to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film features Troy (Denzel Washington), who grapples with the unfulfilled potential of his baseball career due to segregation and the limited opportunities for Black American families.

“Fences” also reflects on ongoing debates about justice and how different generations approach racial injustice in America. It provides a nuanced look at the moment of realizing there is something beyond self-hate and emphasizes the importance of listening and adapting as times change and people demand recognition.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989) – Written and Directed by Spike Lee

“Do the Right Thing,” written and directed by Spike Lee, is one of the most influential films in Black cinema and American film history.

Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the story unfolds on a sweltering day, intensifying tensions between a local resident and the Wall of Fame in a white Italian-American pizzeria.

The film offers a powerful look at the beauty and brutality that Black Americans face, presenting life from their perspective.

Spike Lee’s message to Hollywood was clear: the industry was on the wrong side of history by not allowing Black filmmakers to tell their stories on a larger scale.

“Do the Right Thing” is a revolutionary work that holds a well-deserved place in cinema history.

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