Martin Luther King Day celebrates the life of the most recognizable figure of the Civil Rights Movement. King provided undeniable leadership in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. On this day we look to celebrate him, while also celebrating the many activists that are often overlooked. The fight for civil rights is an ongoing movement with many faces. So we decided to compile a short list of films that celebrate King and those who risk their lives for the betterment of their communities.

[This is not intended as an exhaustive resource and the work being depicted is sometimes more traditional and in others, more abstract.  For additional works & materials, we invite you to check out the site: To Be Antiracist.]

Activist-Centered Watchlist:


Directed by Sam Feder (2020)

"DISCLOSURE is an unprecedented, eye-opening look at transgender depictions in film and television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender. Leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, share their reactions and resistance to some of Hollywood’s most beloved moments."

Available on: Netflix

In this documentary, leading trans creatives and thinkers share heartfelt perspectives and analysis about Hollywood's impact on the trans community.

Talk to Me

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (2007)

"The story of Washington D.C. radio personality Ralph 'Petey' Greene, an ex-con who became a popular talk show host and community activist in the 1960s."

Available on: HBO Max

Lemmons is an under-appreciated gem. All her strengths are on display in this period piece depicting a dynamic friendship brought to life by Don Cheadle & Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Talk to Me (Kassi Lemmons)
One Night in Miami (Regina King)

One Night in Miami

Directed by Regina King (2020)

"In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South."

Available on: Amazon Prime

King makes a savvy, strong directorial debut with this adaption of Kemp Powers' (Soul) stage play. Kingsley Ben-Adir & Leslie Odom Jr. are magnificent!

Small Axe (Anthology)

Directed by Steve McQueen (2020)

"An anthology series of five stories looking at the lives of a group of friends and their families in London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s to the early 80s."

Available on: Amazon Prime

No one has an eye like McQueen & whether you call this a movie, a series, or TV, this work demands seeing!
Small Axe (Steve McQueen)
Malcolm X (Spike Lee)

Malcolm X

Directed by Spike Lee (1992)

"A tribute to the controversial black activist and leader of the struggle for black liberation. He hit bottom during his imprisonment in the ’50s, he became a Black Muslim and then a leader in the Nation of Islam. His assassination in 1965 left a legacy of self-determination and racial pride."

Available on: HBO Max

Building on a script originally co-penned by James Baldwin, this iconic Spike Lee Joint is an immersive and gripping three hours into the life of one of the most controversial figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Denzel Washington's performance as X stands out in a long career of exceptional and striking work. If you're going to watch any film about Malcolm X, this is the one to watch.

When We Were Kings

Directed by Leon Gast (1996)

"It’s 1974. Muhammad Ali is 32 and thought by many to be past his prime. George Foreman is ten years younger and the heavyweight champion of the world. Promoter Don King wants to make a name for himself and offers both fighters five million dollars apiece to fight one another, and when they accept, King has only to come up with the money. He finds a willing backer in Mobutu Sese Suko, the dictator of Zaire, and the “Rumble in the Jungle” is set, including a musical festival featuring some of America’s top black performers, like James Brown and B.B. King."

Available on: Showtime

An in-depth close-up of Ali in a pivotal moment in his life as he attempts to make a statement fighting a much younger opponent (Foreman) & in Africa.
When We Were Kings (Leon Gast)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)


Directed by Ava DuVernay (2014)

"'Selma,' as in Alabama, the place where segregation in the South was at its worst, leading to a march that ended in violence, forcing a famous statement by President Lyndon B. Johnson that ultimately led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act."

Available on: Fubo TV & Peacock

This film dives into the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965. What stands out about this work is that it doesn't shy away from King's flaws, while also portraying his importance in the movement for equal voting rights. Starring powerhouses such as David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Carmen Ejogo, and Tessa Thompson, this work shines a light on the interpersonal conflicts between King, fellow activists, and his family. And how they risk their lives to organize some of the most influential protests of the 20th century.

I Am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck (2016)

"Working from the text of James Baldwin’s unfinished final novel, director Raoul Peck creates a meditation on what it means to be Black in the United States."

Available on: Most Streaming Channels

Peck undergoes a great work of archival collage bringing to life this unfinished manuscript through Baldwin's own voice & Samuel L. Jackson's narration. 
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Directed by Liz Garbus (2015)

"The film chronicles Nina Simone’s journey from child piano prodigy to iconic musician and passionate activist, told in her own words."

Available on: Netflix

Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary tells the story of Nina Simone's tumultuous rise and fall as a singer, pianist, and civil rights activist. This extraordinary work demonstrates how the experience of Black trauma (and having the courage to speak about it) can often be a detriment to one's mental health, family, and career.

Sermon on the Mount & Home Videos

Directed by Jerrod Carmichael (2019)

"Jerrod Carmichael explores aspects of the black experience through interviews with his family. In [these] special[s], Carmichael focuses on the strong black women in his life, returning home to North Carolina for informal, intimate conversations with his family and friends, who speak candidly about subjects such as sex, confidence, beauty standards and feminism."

Available on: HBO Max

Bucking any pretense, Carmichael simply sits with members of his family and simply speaks with different generations about their day-to-day & insights beautifully captured on celluloid.
Home Videos (Jerrod Carmichael)
Loving (Jeff Nichols)


Directed by Jeff Nichols (2016)

"The story of Richard & Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, whose challenge of their anti-miscegenation arrest for their marriage in Virginia led to a legal battle that would end at the US Supreme Court."

Available on: Netflix

Potently understated, Nichols tenderly navigates an important story that could easily deviate into Oscar-bait. Edgerton, Negga, & the whole cast dazzle with their soft spoken intimacy and empathy.