Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than just another day off from school. It’s a time to reflect and celebrate the life and legacy of a man whose dreams of equality paved the way for the civil rights movement.
Popular culture has taken notice of King’s sentiments with the abundance of racially themed films made since his passing.
The Oracle lists some of the most powerful films that deal with race and inequality. Curl up on the couch with one of these cinema classics on Monday, and think about how far we’ve come as a country, as well as how much work still needs to be done.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” – 1962
An adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” tells the story of a family whose moral fiber is tested in a racist Alabama town in the 1930s. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) fights hard to defend a wrongfully accused black man who stands trial for rape.
Even if you’ve read the book, the film is still worth scouring for, having been named the 25th greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute. It also marks the acting debut of Robert Duvall as Arthur “Boo” Radley.
“Do the Right Thing” – 1989
Before Spike Lee was known for just being an obnoxious courtside Knicks fan, he was an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Perhaps his best work, “Do the Right Thing” is a dramedy that details the stirring racial tensions of a Brooklyn neighborhood.
The film tallied up three Academy Awards. Lee wrote, produced, directed and played a major acting role in the film, which also served as the acting debut for Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez.
“American History X” – 1998
One of the more graphically intense films on the list, “American History X” tells the story of two brothers in Venice Beach, Calif. When their firefighter father is killed by a black drug dealer, Derek (Edward Norton) joins the neo-Nazi movement. When he goes to jail for murdering two black gang members trying to break into the truck he inherited from his father, his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) begins following in his brother’s footsteps.
The non-linear narrative follows Derek’s life-changing experience in prison and his attempts to steer young Danny away from going down the same road. The film earned Edward Norton an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
“Remember the Titans” – 2000
This Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films collaboration will go down as one of the best sports movies of all time. Denzel Washington stars as a newly hired black football coach for the desegregated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
Based on true events, the film tells the story of black and white coaches, players and fans thrust together through football. Characters overcome obstacles of prejudice, racism and inequality on their way to unifying both a team and an entire town.
“Crash” – 2004
Paul Haggis wrote, produced and directed this Academy Award winner for Best Picture that follows multiple characters and how their lives intersect and revolve around racial tension. A litany of stars fill out the cast, including Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Michael Pena, Brendan Fraser, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillippe.
One of the best aspects of this film is the soundtrack. “In the Deep,” written and sung by Kathleen York, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
“The Help” – 2011
Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel under the same title, “The Help” centers on a young white woman and her relationship with two black maids in the early 1960s. While many racially themed movies focus on men, this work primarily shows roles of women in the civil rights era. Controversy unravels as the young white woman writes a novel from the point of view of the black maids.
The film was a major success, grossing more eight times the budget used to make it. The film stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard.
“Red Tails” – 2012
Executive Producer George Lucas declared on “The Daily Show” Jan. 10 that the recent blockbuster detailing the action of the Tuskegee Airmen was difficult to get funded because of its nearly all black cast.
“It’s because it’s an all-black movie,” Lucas said to host Jon Stewart. “There’s no major white roles in it at all … I showed it to all of them and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.”
As proof of its inspiring effects, Nick Saban, football coach of the now National Champion University of Alabama Crimson Tide took his team to see it the night before the BCS National Championship and made several mentions of the film in post-game interviews.