African American History Month Series: 9 Must-See Civil Rights Films

“The arc of the moral universe is long; but it bends toward justice.” ­–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

With the shouting matches on the networks, the proliferation of misinformation and seeing our country divided more than history has seen in quite some time, we need to place more emphasis on civil rights and personal freedom than ever before. If we want our children to live in a world where they all, without exception, have the right to vote, the right to health and education, the right to choose their friends and be who they want to be regardless of sex, religion or color, we must not forget the past.

It was not so long ago that our laws instituted “separate but equal” in schools, that Jim Crow denied access to African Americans arbitrarily – then look further back in time to when humans were treated as livestock.

The remnants of these realities exist today, and that is why it is so important we revisit history and really see the experience of racism through the lens of those who suffered from it. These films depict those realities in an accessible way, as a resource to parents who want to begin the conversation about the history of race in America with their kids.

 

  1. Selma: Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb peel back the layers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an unflinching portrait, as he navigates the choppy waters of the Selma Boycott. African American people of all ages crossed the bridge connecting Selma to Montgomery, while white police attacked – injuring women, the elderly and of course the men. The media attention drew hundreds of people from all races and religions to repeat the march, acting as a human shield and ultimately, turning the tide of the movement.

 

  1. Eyes on the Prize: an award-winning, multi-part documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement, this brilliant piece of filmmaking delivers a blow-by-blow account of the fight for voting rights. With dozens of interviews and a wealth of rarely seen footage, this is the whole arc of the story told by the people who were there.

 

  1. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? At a time when Hollywood seldom took social risks about race, this story moves interracial marriage into the limelight. Sydney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy deliver some of their best roles as their characters struggle to come to grips with their own prejudices.

 

  1. 12 Years a Slave. The tension and brutality in this story are undeniable, adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free African American man who was kidnapped in DC and sent to work in Louisiana as a slave. Henry Louis Gates Jr. consulted on the film to ensure its historical accuracy.

 

  1. In the Heat of the Night. Arguably one of Sidney Poitier’s finer roles, a skill investigator from New York travels to the South to visit his family when a murder takes place and the Sheriff grabs Sidney’s character, the first African American man he sees. The Sheriff eats some crow when he discovers that the “boy” he picked up at the train station is a superior cop who ends up as an unlikely ally in solving the murder.

 

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird: It’s a classic film for many reasons, but Harper Lee’s bitter swansong to the segregated South is a tear-jerking tale told through the eyes of a discerning but still innocent child. An African American man is falsely accused of assaulting a woman and the attorney who represents him is the only thing standing between his client and the noose.

 

  1. Mississippi Burning. When three Jewish civil rights activists disappear in Nashoba County, MS, Federal investigators are called to the scene to discover that these innocent young men had been brutally murdered by the KKK. The struggle that ensues to bring the assailants to justice reveals the ugly underbelly of institutional racism.

 

  1. 42: Jackie Robinson may have been one of the best baseball players in the history of the game, and the first African American to play in the major leagues. The cruelty and degradation he endured made him a torchbearer for his people during a time when Jim Crow thrived.

 

  1. Freedom Riders: This story is about one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, documented by author Raymond Arsenault in his book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. That summer more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives traveling together in the segregated South to protest injustice. In an act of non-violent defiance, these everyday people boarded trains and buses that were restricted to African Americans. 

 

We recommend you watch these films yourselves before sharing them with your children, as the nature of these true stories is graphic, violent, and hard to absorb for younger children. It is often incomprehensible to us now that there were separate bathrooms and dedicated restaurants and hospitals, much less the notion that one ethnic group could dehumanize another enough to buy and sell them.

However, we do ourselves and our children a grave disservice if we turn away from the facts at a time when racism is far from conquered and more divisive hate speech is entering the public discussion. As parents, we are duty-bound to show our kids the truth, that many people in this country are far from free despite so many in the recent past who were willing to put their lives on the line. It’s a time to educate ourselves and rise up, so that we can make Dr. King’s dream a reality, that all people can live in peace and harmony.

About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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