Essential Civil Rights Cinema


The soul-crushing events of this week, including the horrifying deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota after fatal encounters with police, have spurred violent and deadly protests (condemned by the Black Lives Matter movement), and further discussions about police force and racial profiling.

These ongoing civil rights debates have shaped the movies for decades — in many cases, reinforcing racial biases against black men and women and censoring the conversation altogether. But there is a history of civil rights cinema that addresses this difficult subject in documentary and dramatic form, offering a thought-provoking and in-depth view of the continuing fight for equality amongst African-Americans. Here are just a few of those films.

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X, one of the Civl Rights movement’s most controversial leaders in the 1960s and a forefather to the Black Power movement that would follow, gets the Spike Lee treatment in this bio-drama starring Denzel Washington in an incredible performance. From Roger Ebert’s 1992 review:

This is an extraordinary life, and Spike Lee has told it in an extraordinary film. Like Gandhi, the movie gains force as it moves along; the early scenes could come from the lives of many men, but the later scenes show a great original personality coming into focus. To understand the stages of Malcolm’s life is to walk for a time in the steps of many African-Americans, and to glimpse where the journey might lead.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The first slap heard around the world had to come from Sidney Poitier’s heroic Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. The film centers on a murder investigation in racist small-town Mississippi. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, the lawman interrogates a racist plantation owner and is slapped by the man. Tibbs gives him a retaliatory slap back, which was unprecedented for a black actor in a mainstream American movie — especially during the era’s widespread fight for civil rights. The actor’s slap back was not featured in the original script or novel, but Poitier insisted that his character’s reaction be included in the film.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

Swedish journalists traveled to the United States in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to document American life, warts and all. What resulted was an intimate and candid look at racial relations during the time period. From the New York Times’ review:

The film begins at a moment when the concept of black power was promoted by Stokely Carmichael, a veteran of the freedom rides early in the decade, who, like many young black activists, had grown frustrated with the Gandhian, nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Carmichael, who later moved to Guinea and took the name Kwame Ture, is remembered for the militancy of his views and his confrontational, often slashingly witty speeches, but the Swedish cameras captured another side of him. In the most touching and arresting scene in Mixtape, he interviews his mother, Mable, gently prodding her to talk about the effects of poverty and discrimination on her family. That quiet conversation is a reminder that the inflammatory rhetoric of the black power movement, with its talk of revolution, national liberation and armed struggle, had its roots in bitter experience. And while The Black Power Mixtape tells a story of defiance and pride, it is also a tale of defeat, frustration and terrible destruction. The assassination of Dr. King, the grinding toll of the Vietnam War, the Attica prison uprising, the spread of heroin in the ghettoes of northern cities: these are not chapters in a tale of triumph.

Now (1965)

A documentary short about racism in the United States, composed of newsreel footage, morgue photographs, and a recording by Lena Horne. From Bright Lights Film Journal:

Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez fired off Now!, one of the most powerful bursts of propaganda rendered in the 1960s. Not intended as a work of great subtlety, Alvarez wields other people’s images with more artistry than those who first captured them, and builds a remarkable piece of rhetorical cinema in the process. It’s target — the then-current racial conflagration in the United States — was (and is) an easy one. But it is perhaps this fact that most fuels the scorn and rage in the marrow of this film. If there had been any room for nuance, he might have gone a little easier. Now! is strident stuff, yes; but breathtaking.

Freedom on My Mind (1994)

From the Washington Post on the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner that examines the story of Freedom Summer — a massive campaign by major civil rights organizations and volunteer African-Americans in 1964 to register African-American voters, and build schools and community centers that would offer much-needed services to African-Americans:

Freedom on My Mind tells a story that has been told before, but can’t be told too often. After all the films about the civil rights movement, this moving, enlightening documentary on the Mississippi Voter Registration Project conveys the human dimensions of the fight with such a powerful combination of sensitivity and intelligence and pure emotional insight that it seems as if the facts were being set down for the very first time. Using an impressive combination of film footage, photographs and firsthand testimony from those who actually brought about this essential political change, producer-directors Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford create more than a simple historical record of events. The cast of activists who led this movement were among the most ardent and courageous young people in this country’s history, and as the film shows, they came from everywhere and all backgrounds.

Selma (2014)

From our own Jason Bailey’s review of Ava DuVernay’s essential film that chronicles Martin Luther King’s push for equal voting rights and the historical march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965:

The timeliness of the picture, coupled with the immediacy of the filmmaking, renders Selma more powerful than even its skilled creators could’ve possibly intended. After all, it takes us to a moment when ‘black voters are kept off the rolls and out of the voting booth’ — following an election where the dismantling of the film’s climactic legislation and scores of laws enacted to prevent fictitious ‘voter fraud’ thinned rolls across the country. It reminds us of the scourge of improvised ‘literacy tests,’ just as the vapid (white) talking heads of a conservative news outlet propose reinstating such exams. It shows the brutal beatings and tear-gassing of those who attempt to protest injustice and racism, scenes shot today in HD video rather than newsreel film. And in the midst of it all, a uniformed police officer murders an unarmed black man, which apparently remains an unindictable offense.

Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement (2016)

Actor Jesse Williams directed a recent documentary about the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement, that started on social media and has since gained momentum through protests and demonstrations in cities across America. The group’s campaign against police violence towards black people, racial profiling/inequality, and more is examined via first-person accounts from local activists, protesters, scholars, journalists and others.

The Loving Story (2011)

This HBO documentary tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving — an interracial couple married in 1958, who went against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. At the time of their union, interracial marriage was illegal in 21 states. The couple was arrested, tried, and convicted of a felony. The case went to the top of the courts after a long struggle, until finally the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings on June 12, 1967. This resulted in 16 states being ordered to overturn their bans on interracial marriage.