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Remembering the Dream: 10 Civil Rights Movies You Should Watch

By February 1, 2024No Comments

Remembering the Dream: 10 Civil Rights Movies You Should WatchCinema can act as a mirror to our society, reflecting the good, the bad, the ugly, and the scars left by our society. While it can be difficult to look back, history is important to remember, preserved, and challenged. One of the most important moments in history that has been preserved in film is the Civil Rights Movement. From institutionalized racial segregation to discrimination, there were many issues that the movement pushed back against. 

Many great films reflect the ideas of the movement and challenge perfectly or still show the challenges that the Civil Rights Movement stood against. Here are ten Civil Rights movies to watch and reflect on the impact of the historic movement in America. 

Read More: Screenwriter’s Monthly: Spotlight on Black Writers

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Directed by Daniel Petrie, Written by Lorraine Hansberry

This adaption of Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway play–the first Broadway play to be 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 they will do with the insurance payment they expect to receive. 

Facing racial discrimination and limited opportunities, A Raisin in the Sun sparked a conversation about the pivotal issues that were topical to the Civil Rights Movement that a diverse audience could resonate with. 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Directed by Stanley Kramer, Written by William Rose

Months after the landmark Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision legalized interracial marriage across the U.S. Stanley Kramer’s drawing room comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sparked a powerful social commentary that challenged the prejudices and hypocrisy of the audience.  

The film revolves around Joey (Katharine Houghton), a white woman, introducing Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), her Black fiancé, to her liberal parents. The film reflected the real-world issues faced by Black Americans by exploring the microaggressions, stereotypes, and appropriation of Black culture. 

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

Written and Directed by Spike Lee

Written and directed by Spike LeeDo the Right Thing is one of the most influential films in Black cinema and American film history. Focused on lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, the blistering heat adds to the rising tension between a neighborhood local and the Wall of Fame in a white Italian-American pizzeria.

Do the Right Thing offers a look at the beauty and brutality that Black Americans face by looking at life through their perspective. It was Lee letting Hollywood know that it was on the wrong side of history, harming by not letting Black filmmakers tell Black stories on a grander scale. The film–a script–is revolutionary and deserves its place in cinema history. 

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Paris Is Burning (1990)

Directed by Jennie Livingston

This Black queer documentary introduced the mainstream culture to ballroom culture, which are elaborately-structured competition. Black and Latinx communities find expression and belonging through drag, dance, and fashion. 

Paris Is Burning is a revolutionary documentary for compassionately capturing the complex realities the subjects face. The film showcases the intersectionality of queer people of color as it follows subjects dealing with racism, poverty, homelessness, and violence. With unapologetic authenticity at its core, the documentary challenges social norms, urging viewers to cultivate compassion for individuals living their truths.

Malcolm X (1992)

Directed by Spike Lee, Written by Arnold Perl and Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s American epic biopic about legendary Civil Rights activist Malcolm X looks at what made this figure’s struggle for racial equality in the U.S. different from the other prominent figures in the movement. The film follows the life of the controversial Black activist and leader until his assassination in 1965. 

Malcolm X is a significant film in American cinema due to its historical context, portrayal of a polarizing and complex character, and the reflection of his impact on American history. The film also sparked a conversation about race, justice, and the reassessment of Malcolm X.

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Fruitvale Station (2013)

Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station delves into the final 24 hours of Oscar Grant, leading to the fatal confrontation with a BART officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. The film showed the everyday struggles, hopes, and dreams of Grant before the tragic encounter after a New Year’s Eve celebration.

Fruitvale Station brought attention to the shooting of Oscar Grant, contributing to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and opened up conversation about racial profiling, excessive force by police used against people of color, and the need for police reform in the U.S. The film’s success also contributed to Hollywood opening up the door a little bit more for Black narratives and voices to shine on the silver screen. 

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Selma (2014)

Directed by Ava DuVernay, Written by Paul Webb

Perhaps one of the most important movies focuses on the Civil Rights Movement is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The film follows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers as they march from Selma to Montgomery. This march and efforts largely impacted President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The film reignited conversations about ongoing struggles for voting rights and racial equality in the U.S., bringing attention to the sacrifices made by prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement. On Top of the film’s story, the film is a landmark in American cinema.

Shockingly enough, Selma is the first biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. and became the film that made American film history when DuVernay became the first Black woman to direct a Best Picture nominated film. 

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Fences (2016)

Directed by Denzel Washington, Written by August Wilson

Adapted from August Wilson’s short story, Fences is a raw exploration of the themes and experiences intertwined with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film showcases Troy (Denzel Washinton) grappling with the unfulfilled potential of his baseball career due to segregation and the limitations of opportunities for the Black American family. 

Fences also reflect on the ongoing debates about what should be fought for to bring justice to the people and how different generations approach racial injustice in America. The nuanced look at the moment of realization that there is something beyond self-hate and the need to listen and adapt as times change and the people demand to be acknowledged. 

Read More: Screenwriter’s Monthly: Adaptations

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Get Out (2017)

Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was a historical moment in American cinema that we can still feel the effects of today. Following Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he meets his girlfriend’s white family, a dark truth reveals itself. When the realization dawns on Chris that he isn’t safe with her family, it’s too late. 

Get Out presents a nightmarish version of racism in America. The obsession with Black bodies and immoral longing to retain their status as the dominant racial group is what makes this story tick. The film is an exploration of the growing racial tension in America and comments on police violence in a deleted ending that Peele originally wrote

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 largely absent from mainstream media narratives. Often portrayed solely through a lens of violence and radicalism, their nuanced legacy deserves a broader understanding. Films like Judas and the Black Messiah are crucial in illuminating their multifaceted struggle for self-determination and community empowerment, revealing a narrative beyond the often one-dimensional portrayals.

Telling the true story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant, the film reveals the Black Panthers’ appeal to Black Americans and Freedom Fighters as well as the group’s internal tensions and efforts by the law enforcement to disband the organization. 

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These ten films capture the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in diverse ways, but this list only scratches the surface. To delve deeper, explore the works of Sidney Poitier, an actor who consistently championed well-rounded, nuanced portrayals of Black men on screen.

These movies not only inspire us, they remind us of the strife, empowerment, and resilience of Black voices in the U.S. and the importance of their stories on the big screen.

Read More: 10 of the Best Horror Movies About the Black Experience