Contemporary Films About the Civil Rights Movement

MLK leading march from Selma to Montgomery

William Lovelace/Stringer/Getty Images

Several films that dramatized the civil rights movement debuted from the late 1980s on. Then, filmmakers were far enough removed from this groundbreaking movement to capture it with new insight. Movies such as HBO's Boycott received praise not only for using flashy camera techniques to chronicle the Montgomery Bus Boycott but also for portraying Martin Luther King as vulnerable. In contrast, Mississippi Burning faced criticism for centering the civil rights struggle around whites. With this roundup of social justice dramas, learn which movies on civil rights missed the mark and which ones exceeded expectations.

“Mississippi Burning” (1988)

Mississippi Burning

MGM Studios

In Mississippi Burning, Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe star as F.B.I. agents searching for three missing civil rights workers. The movie was inspired by the 1964 disappearance of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, field workers for the Congress for Racial Equality. The lives of Chaney, an African American, and Goodman and Schwerner, Jewish, came to a violent end when members of the Ku Klux Klan hunted them down in Philadelphia, Miss. A Washington Post review said the film “offers an appalling litany of white supremacist atrocities in the guise of a buddy detective thriller.” The film has been criticized for relegating its black characters to the background and recounting “Freedom Summer” from an entirely white viewpoint.

“The Long Walk Home” (1990)

The Long Walk Home movie poster

Miramax Films

Set against the backdrop of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Long Walk Home tells the story of a fictional black maid named Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg) and her white employer, Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek). When the black community is urged not to ride Montgomery buses after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, Odessa joins the boycott—walking to and from work. Socialite Miriam, the wife of a wealthy businessman, initially sees the boycott not as a social justice movement but as an inconvenience since it results in her maid arriving late for work. Before long, Miriam begins to give Odessa rides. She soon develops a deeper understanding of the boycott's significance.

“The Ernest Green Story” (1993)

The Ernest Green Story movie poster

Disney Educational Productions

Starring Morris Chestnut and Ossie Davis, this Peabody Award-winning Disney production centers on Ernest Green, the sole senior among the black students known as the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, this group of students integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The movie details how Green managed to make it through the school year despite the stress and extreme bigotry he encountered. Although he was under enormous pressure, Green triumphs to become an inspiration to the African-American community and beyond. The teenager would go on to serve as assistant labor secretary in the Carter administration. Eric Laneuville directs.

“Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996)

Ghosts of Mississippi movie poster

Columbia Pictures

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Alec Baldwin and James Woods, Ghosts of Mississippi chronicles how Byron De La Beckwith—the white supremacist assassin of civil rights activist Medgar Evers—is brought to justice decades later. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin criticized the film for falling on the tired scenario of a white hero playing savior to black victims. Maslin also took aim at the film for borrowing heavily from To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill. She noted, "This film allows a case to be made on behalf of a reprehensible character ‘because if the system doesn't work for Byron De La Beckwith, it doesn't work for anyone. 'The People vs. Larry Flynt' says the same thing...infinitely better."

“Disney’s Ruby Bridges” (1998)

Disney's Ruby Bridges movie poster


Starring Chaz Monet, Lela Rochon, Michael Beach, and Penelope Ann Miller, Ruby Bridges is the true story of a six-year-old black girl treated like an outcast when in 1960 she integrated New Orleans school William Frantz Elementary. White parents removed their children from class when Bridges stepped foot in the school, and white teachers refused to instruct her. Angry mobs surrounded Bridges as she entered school each morning, an act she could only accomplish with the help of armed guards. Bridges’ courage and determination helped her triumph in the face of racial bigotry and pave the path for better educational opportunities for all children of color. Many educators use this film to teach children about the Jim Crow Era

“Boycott” (2001)

Boycott movie poster


Boycott dramatizes the key developments in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Starring Jeffrey Wright as the Rev. Martin Luther King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King along with Terrence Howard and CCH Pounder as activists Ralph Abernathy and Jo Ann Robinson, the HBO film Boycott offers a fresh look at the civil rights movement by cutting in old newsreel footage with scenes that offer a behind-the-scenes look at the boycott as it transpired. Boycott depicts King as a young minister with insecurities and vulnerabilities and shows that, while he surfaced as the figurehead for the civil rights movement, a network of countless anonymous activists mobilized for equality.

“The Rosa Parks Story” (2002)

The Rosa Parks Story movie poster


Angela Bassett stars in this Julie Dash film about Rosa Parks, the seamstress and civil rights activist who inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott after her 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. At that time, whites sat at the front of the bus and blacks in back. If seats in the front ran out, however, blacks had to relinquish their seats to whites and stand. The film shows what shaped Parks to become the type of person to stand up to discrimination. It also reveals the toll Parks’ activism had on her relationship with her husband. Meet the woman behind the legend.