With each year since it was designated as a holiday in 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has carried new yet immovable significance. It did so the year following Rodney King’s 1991 assault. It did so in the years following the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. And now, following the past year’s deaths of Representative John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the arrival of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the November presidential election and this month’s storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, the holiday carries that much more meaning. In our government, in our elections, and in our law enforcement the signs of racism still lurk.
Rather than enumerate already venerated civil rights films like Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and Agnès Varda’s “Black Panthers,” unquestionably important works, this list compiles streaming titles from this year and last that not only speak to King’s racial justice legacy, but also to the continued and immediate struggle for voting rights and equal treatment under the law.
For 18 years Fox Rich, a modern-day abolitionist, filmed thousands of home videos for her imprisoned husband Rob. Because of her involvement (as the getaway driver) in a robbery conducted by her husband and his cousin in 1997, Rich served three and a half years while the court sentenced Rob to 60 years in prison. Garrett Bradley’s affecting black-and-white film documents the moments Rob lost with his six children and his dedicated wife. In an 81-minute span, a delicate edit of those heartfelt video messages chronicling missed birthday parties, impassioned speeches and letters of love, Bradley explores not only how the prison industrial complex defrauds Black citizens of much more than time, but also how one woman remained undaunted in her mission to free her husband.
Regina King’s feature, adapted from Kemp Powers’s play of the same name, and loosely based on a true event, concerns four of the more prominent Black cultural figures of the 1960s — Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) — meeting in a Miami hotel room after Clay’s 1964 victory over Sonny Liston. Each actor delivers enjoyable one-liners that come off as genuine. And the dialogue they speak regarding the pathways for racial justice is as heartfelt as it is powerful. In her direction, King makes us wish for a second night.
With the many films and historical texts on King, we know that his life was well-documented. But Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” shows that it was much more traced than some may have imagined. From 1963 to King’s death, in a bid to destabilize the civil rights movement, the F.B.I. recorded thousands of hours of audio surveillance on the activist. This provocative film provides more than King’s soaring speeches. It investigates the meaning behind being a moral leader. Rumors about King having multiple affairs are raised and the questionable tactics of F.B.I. counterintelligence are examined. “MLK/FBI” is a complicated portrayal of a deified hero. Yet in the thorniness of King’s personal history the humanity of the man is redefined.
While you should watch all of Steve McQueen’s five-film British anthology “Small Axe,” the civil rights narrative of “Mangrove” is particularly resonant. Concerning the Mangrove Nine, a group of West Indian protesters put on trial in 1970 for inciting a riot, McQueen crafts a courtroom battle that spotlights the racism that exposed extralegal cracks in the British justice system. Powerhouse performances from Letitia Wright as the British Black Panther member Altheia Jones-LeCointe, and Shaun Parkes as the restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, propel a film that centers the unyielding fight for self-determination.
‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’
Representative John Lewis’s ethos “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” inspires the title of Dawn Porter’s documentary about the civil rights icon. The film covers Lewis’s major accomplishments — being the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington; leading the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; and being elected to Congress — while conveying his lifelong dedication to nonviolent resistance. And few stagings hit with greater force than Lewis watching, in astonishment, the footage from his activist life. Sentimental yet undaunted, Porter’s documentary is an essential tribute to Lewis and his struggle.
‘Da 5 Bloods’
Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and George Floyd’s death are inextricably linked. The film about four Black war veterans returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their fallen commander, and the C.I.A. gold they left buried, was released in the throes of protests following Floyd’s killing. Through a searing soliloquy, Paul (Delroy Lindo), the drama’s tragic lead who never recovered from losing Norman, lends voice to the generation of Black men forced into watching their friends die in a thankless war, only to return home to find civil rights leaders killed as well. “Da 5 Bloods” concludes with a Black Lives Matter chant, and it’s Paul’s belief that his Black life does matter that is the film’s heartbeat.
‘All In: The Fight for Democracy’
The woman of the hour remains Stacey Abrams. The Democratic candidate for Georgia governor played an instrumental role not only in Joe Biden’s presidential win in that state, but also in Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s Senate victories. Abrams’s campaigning, however, began long before the 2020 election. In this frank documentary, the directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés demonstrate how Abrams laid the groundwork to fight decades of voter disenfranchisement in Georgia, and how those efforts reverberated beyond the state.