Documentaries to Watch: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Updated 2021)
By Mitch Kampf
This Monday, we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Check out our curated list of documentary films and series on Dr. King and the civil rights era.
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
The 2021 feature documentary by Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard. MLK/FBI is the first film to uncover the extent of the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on newly discovered and declassified files, the documentary explores the government's history of targeting Black activists, and the contested meaning behind some of our most cherished ideals.
Eyes on the Prize (PBS)
Originally broadcast on PBS as a 14-part documentary series, Eyes on the Prize follows the American civil rights movement from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision through the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the first African-American mayor of Chicago. The series, through archival footage and interviews with participants and opponents of the movement, paints a vivid portrait of a shifting American society with incredible depth.
Watch it on Kanopy.
King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet)
The first and only documentary ever directed by Sidney Lumet, King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis follows King from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 all the way through his assassination in 1968. Opting to use unretouched original newsreel and other primary material, Lumet brings viewers directly into Dr. King's crusade. The result is a renowned film that both appreciates the personal challenges Dr. King endured and the cultural legacy he left behind.
Watch it on Kanopy.
King in the Wilderness (Peter Kunhardt)
Picking up in the film years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, Peter Kunhardt’s King in the Wilderness follows the civil rights leader’s struggle to hold together principles of non-violent protest in an increasingly violent era and the resulting criticism he received from all sides of the political spectrum. Conversing with those close to Dr. King, including some of his contemporaries at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King in the Wilderness offers a closer look at King as a human being struggling to make the world a better place.
Watch it on HBO.
Soundtrack for a Revolution (Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman)
Tracing the civil rights movement from the perspective of young African-American activists, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Soundtrack for a Revolution focuses on the power music had within the movement and at this time in American history. Pulling in contemporary artists such as John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean and The Roots, the film acts as a modern reflection on the power of music and how it shaped the children of the civil rights era.