Hank’s Recommendations 01/15/13

hank_paperMartin Luther King Day should be every day of the year. Everyone has heard his truly moving “I Have a Dream” speech, underscored by that resonant prescient voice inspiring us to enter a Canaan that, like Moses, he himself would not be able to cross into. Here are some films which, while perhaps not transporting us to that promised land, at least invoke the non-violent struggle he devoted his life to, and that I think he just might have wanted us all to see.


At the very top of this list, and winner of eight Academy Awards, should be the epic yet intimate portrait of King’s own mentor who, like King, was assassinated before he could fully enter the era he, by and large, single handedly invoked and provoked. Luminously portrayed by (if not politically-correctly cast with) Ben Kingsley (who won the Best Actor Oscar), this was one of the first films I took my older daughter to see and which I believe, in the small way any film can, helped make her the person she is today.


Nothing_But_a_Man_DVDA film doesn’t have to be loud and demonstrative to be affecting. A perfect example is this independent, award-winning 1964 film by Yale’s Michael Roemer. In a small Alabama town, a black laborer wanting to make a life for himself quietly romances a minister’s daughter and gets a job at the local sawmill which, as he soon finds out, is managed by white racists. With a quiet and involving sense of real life, this film depicts the small struggles and decisions that fed the integration that was then sweeping the country.


In this film about gender equality as well as racism, an affluent housewife in Montgomery, Alabama becomes moved, literally and figuratively, by her struggling maid’s decision to join a bus boycott and walk the nine miles to work. The movie is set in the explosive aftermath of Rosa Park’s courageous decision not to move to the back of the bus and features stellar performances by Whoopi Goldberg as the maid, and Sissy Spacek as the housewife who finds her own sensitivities shifting toward a confrontation with both her white community and her narrow-minded husband.

There are many other great and/or entertaining films I’ve especially liked through the years whose treatment of race might not have been the same without Martin Luther King. Here’s my list:

Antwone Fisher (directorial debut of Denzel Washington; script by Fisher himself)

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Black Like Me

Boyz N the Hood

The Brother from Another Planet

The Color Purple


The Defiant Ones

Do the Right Thing

Eve’s Bayou

Far from Heaven


Fury (’36, Spencer Tracy)


Greased Lightning

The Great White Hope

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Home of the Brave

Imitation of Life (’59 remake)

In the Heat of the Night

Intruder in the Dust

The Jackie Robinson Story

The Jesse Owens Story

The Joe Louis Story

Lean on Me

The Learning Tree

A Lesson Before Dying

Liberty Heights

Mississippi Burning

Native Son (’86)


Putney Swope

A Raisin in the Sun

The Rosa Parks Story


Separate But Equal


A Time to Kill

To Sir, with Love

To Sleep with Anger

Watermelon Man

When We Were Kings

In addition to matters of race, King’s non-violent philosophy obviously has application to our own post-911 era (e.g. Sorry, Haters and The War Within). Let’s hope our passive involvement in these films leads us to a stronger appreciation of King’s passive resistance.



Just released on DVD and restored by the Library of Congress, this three-hour 1970 documentary is a chronological account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activist life, beginning with his leading the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. With the exception of occasional interuptions by celebrity actors (James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Clarence Williams III) intoning relevant verse (perhaps a “heavy” touch in 1970, rather pretentious now), the film consists of vintage footage. There is no omniscient narration. It is a riveting portrait, not only of a courageous man with a stirring moral vision but also of a time of wrenching upheaval.


Made for PBS in 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides that desegregated interstate travel in the South, this Stanley Nelson documentary is a tribute to the incredible heroism of the (mostly) young activists of SNCC and CORE.