Looking for movies to watch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? You’ve come to the right place.
While the national holiday commemorating the leader of the civil rights movement is traditionally considered a day of service, not everyone has the privilege to be able to safely volunteer right now (if you are looking for a safe way to give back throughout 2021, check this out).
Today, we bring you a chronological list of TV shows and movies to watch on Martin Luther King Day––and throughout the year.
You may wonder, what would Dr. King think of watching movies and TV shows instead of volunteering?
In response to that, we recall an excerpt from a 1947 article Dr. King wrote for the campus newspaper while studying at Morehouse College:
“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”
While Hollywood continues to fight for inclusivity, this watchlist is just a small collection of stories––some based on actual events and others inspired by personal experiences––that can enlighten us on the Black experience in America.
Keep in mind, this is just a tiny tidbit of the ‘broad education’ that King alludes to in his early writing. Watching and listening is just the very beginning of what must be done to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
On that note, take a look at this chronological list of 35 movies from Black filmmakers, directors, and actors to watch on MLK Day 2021. or any day of the year.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s stunning play, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee star in A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a working-class Chicago family who is divided about what should be done with the family’s late patriarch’s life insurance money. A Raisin in the Sun is a story about a lack of opportunity, dreams, hope, and loss. Most importantly it’s a film that highlights the importance of family in the Black community.
Nothing But a Man (1964)
The Washington Post wrote that Nothing But a Man “is one of the most sensitive films about Black life ever made in this country.” The 1964 film follows a willful Black rail worker Duff, who abandons his son to live life on his own accord. Everything changes when he meets schoolteacher Josie. Nothing But A Man shows Duff and Josie as they struggle to hold on to their marriage in the oppressive racism of 1960s America.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
In 1967, Sidney Poitier starred in In the Heat of the Night as Virgil Tibbs, a big-city detective from the progressive north who’s sent down to the South to assist a racist cop in hunting down a murderer. The major accomplishment in the film was its development of a mutual understanding and respect between the two central characters.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
In what is widely known as the very first Blaxploitation film, Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and starred in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a sex worker who finds himself on the run after murdering two cops who had wrongly accused him of murder. The film reflects the pain, despair, and fear that is constantly present for so many Black people, to this day.
The Great Depression was a devastating period across the country, but even more so for the severely impoverished living in the South. Sounder, starring the revered Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, follows the Morgans, a poor Black sharecropping family living during the 1930s who endure racism and injustice while struggling to educate their 11-year old son. This 1972 film, based on the 1970 Newbery Medal-winning novel Sounder by William H. Armstrong, was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Though this was technically 1974 TV miniseries, based on the book by acclaimed author Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman can be seen as a complete piece now. Starring the legendary Cicely Tyson in a role for which she won two Emmys, the film tells the story of a woman in the South who is born into slavery.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
After the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s died down, the Black Independent Film Movement began emerging. Set in Watts, Los Angeles, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep was one of these important Hollywood movies. Though the movie was not released until 30 years after it was complete, it’s an important story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker, who seems to be working himself to death. It’s a film about the lack of opportunity, life, and family.
The Color Purple (1985)
Based on Alice Walker’s heartbreaking novel, The Color Purple is the pivotal story of Celie Johnson and the hardships she faced as a Black woman in early 20th century America. Though the story is a personal and fictionalized account, the trials and tribulations that Celie endured were representative of entire generations of Black women. Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple was Whoopi Goldberg’s breakout role.
School Daze (1988)
In the film that inspired a generation of African-Americans to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Spike Lee presented School Daze. The movie follows a fictional HBCU Mission College and the opposition between the fraternities and activists on the campus. The film also reflects on issues of colorism within the African-American community. If you’re a Black-ish fan, School Daze is an epic opportunity to see a young Laurence Fishburne.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Ten years after its release, Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed Do the Right Thing was inducted into the Library of Congress because of its cultural significance. The moving film tells the story of the brewing racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood that comes to a head on the hottest day of the summer. Do the Right Thing remains relevant today as we continue to struggle with racial tensions and police brutality.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Written and directed by Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust is the first movie directed by a Black woman to be released in movie theaters in the United States. The movie tells the story of three generations of Gullah women on St. Helena Island in 1902, who come together for a last dinner before they prepare to migrate to the North.
Malcolm X (1991)
Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington dramatizes the outspoken civil rights leader’s life from his criminal start, incarceration, conversation to Islam, and subsequent rise as a revolutionary. In 2010, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
4 Little Girls (1997)
One of the most horrific injustices during the civil rights movement was the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church on Sunday, September 15, 1963. As the smoke cleared, four little girls lay dead. Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls is a documentary about the horrendous massacre and the events that occurred before and after.
In what many would call one of the greatest biopics of all time, Jamie Foxx stars in Ray; the life-story of acclaimed musician Ray Charles. The story chronicles Charles’ life from his impoverished childhood to his tumultuous rise to fame and subsequent drug addiction. The movie boasts not just an astounding story and stunning music, but it’s also a film of inspiration and perseverance during one of the most trying times in American history.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a documentary film that chronicles this movement in the late ’60 to mid-1970s. Along with never before seen footage of the time, the film also includes contemporary audio interviews that show the people and culture that brought the movement to life and inspired change.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is one of the most brutal and accurate Hollywood movies on slavery to date. The film follows Solomon Northup an educated, free Black man who was tricked into slavery where he suffered horrifically for 12 years until he finally escaped. The film garnered Chiwetel Ejiofor his first Academy Award nomination.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Ryan Coogler’s debut film Fruitvale Station is Oscar Grant III’s story. Michael B. Jordan stars as Grant, a young man living in the Bay Area who is desperate to turn his life around for his daughter. Instead, Grant was murdered by the Bart Police, New Years Eve 2008. His shooting was caught on video and shook the nation to the core.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Idris Elba stars in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom as late South African President Nelson Mandela. The movie chronicles the polarizing figure from his early life, 27-year incarceration, and subsequent role as leader and hero of the formally segregated South Africa. It shows the global scope of racism and colonization.
We’re used to seeing 18th-century British high society as very white-washed, but Amma Asante’s Belle is significant because it flips this narrative on its head. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido, a girl of mixed-race who is adopted into an aristocratic family and develops a relationship with a vicar’s son. Though outwardly Dido has all of the privileges of an 18th-century aristocratic woman, she soon learns that her skin color is seen as a mark against her.
Dear White People (2014)
Justin Simien’s Dear White People is a look at race in the 21st century. The movie chronicles a semester at a predominantly white university as tensions continue to mount between white students and students of color. If you’ve never seen Dear White People, the satirical drama film is definitely worth the watch, as is the 2017 TV series version of the movie out now on Netflix.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. This film not only shows the significance of the movement, but it highlights Dr. King as a man instead of an untouchable historical figure who wrote the “I Have A Dream” speech.
Moonlight is the Oscar-winning LGBTQ coming-of-age story of a young Black boy who grows up in a rough Miami neighborhood. Starring talented celebs Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali, and Janelle Monáe, this movie is available to stream now on Netflix.
Hidden Figures (2016)
This family-friendly movie is based on the true story of 3 Black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the “Space Race.” The biographical movie stars celebs Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe and gives us a glimpse of segregated America in the 1960s.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th is an eye-opening documentary that takes a deep dive into the U.S. prison system and how Black people are disproportionately incarcerated. The Oscar-winning documentary is available to watch for free on Netflix, a move that was motivated by the protests following the death of George Floyd last May.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story (2017)
This docuseries, co-produced by Jay-Z, follows the case of Kalief Browder, a teen from the Bronx who spent three years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit––stealing a backpack. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. The trauma of those years resulted in him committing suicide. Unfortunately, his story is not unique and has since become a symbol of many like him who have been incarcerated for petty crimes.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (2017)
This documentary follows the tension and distrust between the Los Angeles Black community and the corrupt police force in the decade leading up to the Rodney King riots. The movie was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther is one of the most iconic movies with Chadwick Boseman. While it wasn’t the first time a Black hero was shown on the big screen, it has been reported by Time to be the first “megabudget” movie with an African-American director and mostly Black cast.
Free Meek (2019)
This docuseries follows Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill as he fights for his freedom from incarceration. You’ll learn about the alleged dirty cops, planted evidence, and systemic corruption that caused Meek to become another statistic in America’s broken and racist criminal justice system. After his five months in jail, Meek Mill partnered with friend and billionaire Michael Rubin to establish a non-profit with a mission to reduce the number of people who are unjustly trapped in the criminal justice system, whether through probation or parole.
When They See Us (2019)
Another Ava DuVernay creation, this Netflix TV series is based on the true story of five Black teens falsely accused of a crime they didn’t commit.
See You Yesterday (2019)
This sci-fi adventure movie directed by Stefon Bristol and produced by Spike Lee follows two brilliant Black teens who invent backpacks that make it possible to travel through time.
American Son (2019)
American Son stars Scandal’s Kerry Washington as Kendra Ellis-Connor and Steven Pasquale as her estranged husband, a former FBI agent. The pair are trying to find out why their son Jamal, disappeared after being pulled over by Miami police. You can watch the film, which was nominated for an Emmy, right here.
Black Is King (2020)
Black is King is a visual album from Beyoncé that “reimagines the lessons of “The Lion King” for today’s young kings and queens in search of their own crowns.” It’s available here for all Disney+ subscribers.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
If Black Panther has you wanting to watch more movies with Chadwick Boseman, check out Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, an American war drama film that follows Black Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find their squad leader’s remains. They discover something even more surprising. You can watch it now on Netflix.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Rounding out the movies with Chadwick Boseman on this list is this incredible Netflix drama. Viola Davis plays “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey opposite Chadwick Boseman in this film adaptation of the August Wilson play.
Soul asks, “What is it that makes you…YOU?” Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a middle school band teacher who gets to play at the best jazz club in town. A lot more is to follow, but we’ll leave out the spoilers. Watch it on Disney+ right here.
If you’re reading this, kudos to you. You know Hollywood is deeper than celeb gossip, flashy movie trailers, and red carpet appearances. So why is that all we see when scrolling our screens? We’re here to share the good in Hollywood, and want you to be a part of it, too. Our new app (coming soon!) gives you a fast and easy way to buy movie tickets so you can support the filmmakers and actors who wouldn’t exist without fans like you. Did we miss any movies or TV shows on our list? Let us know on Instagram.