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4 civil rights movies every American should watch

Rosa Parks Day is the perfect time to brush up on your history, 2015 style.


Joey Keeton


Posted on Feb 4, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 3:11 pm CDT

Feb. 4 is Rosa Parks Day, which means that it’s a good time to brush up on your history of the civil rights movement in the proper, 2015 fashion—by marathoning Netflix movies. 

I went through a lengthy, internal debate over whether or not I, as a white male, should undertake penning this particular roundup. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I was long overdue for a refresher of the civil rights movement, and as it was unlikely that I’d be opening up a book anytime soon without some sort of test being involved, I decided this would be a great way to simultaneously get some work done and learn myself some things. 

Without further ado: Here are three great films, currently streaming on Netflix, that you probably haven’t seen before—and one that you definitely have.

1) The Long Walk Home (1990)            

The Long Walk Home covers the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955 from a peripheral viewwe hear Rosa Parks’ name as somebody reads the paper, and Rev. King is discussed in black churches as strategies are laid out and nonviolence is stressed as a means of protest—but the film looks past the key players in favor of exploring the implications of the boycott for two familiesone black and working class, the other affluent and white.

Whoopi Goldberg plays Odessa Carter, a maid that lives across town from the wealthy family that employs her: Sissy Spacek is matriarch Miriam Thompson, and her husband—Dwight Schultz (The ATeam’s Howling Mad Murdoch)’s Norman Thompson—is an important city official. He’s a good father—for Christmas, he names some streets after his kids, and that’s a swell thing to do—but he’s uncomfortable with his wife’s growing tendency to treat their maid as a human being. The film’s careful to not portray him as an all-out monster, but it makes no qualms about him being a coward, which is important: Although all-out monsters were certainly involved, segregation was, like many structural injustices, only successfully perpetrated with the mass compliance of foolish cowards.

When the bus boycott begins, there isn’t much question among the black community of whether anybody will get on a bus or not—it’s just simply not an option to ride it, and this means Odessa is required to walk an insane distance to and from work every day. She shows up tired and ends up being forced to ask Miriam if she can cut her schedule down to three days a week. 

Meanwhile, Norman is being increasingly teased by his monstrous brother—played by Dylan Baker (who also appears as J. Edgar Hoover in Selma)—for his wife’s perceived sympathies for the family’s maids. He puts his foot down, mandating that Odessa will have to be fired if she’s willing to let this dignity nonsense with the boycott affect her job performance. Miriam responds by covertly driving Odessa to and from work two days a week—a major faux pas for the wife of a city official—and her husband is furious when he finds out. This time, Miriam puts her foot down and continues driving her, marital cold shoulders and grudges be damned, and Norman is pretty much forced to just accept it. 

Soon after, Miriam’s newly discovered empowerment and her conversations with Odessa result in her taking things up a notch—she begins hanging around a car lot that’s being used to organize rides for boycotters. 

Actively aiding in the boycott, by helping people with rides—unbeknownst to her husband—isn’t just about helping the black community. It’s largely a matter of her practicing her own freedom and listening to her own conscience, in a time when it was only acceptable for women to think about dinner, children, and how unconditionally wonderful their husbands were. As it would turn out, the civil rights movement would go on to resonate very strongly with American women, and it would greatly influence second-wave feminism a decade later.

But though Miriam—as somebody gradually shedding her neutrality on a practice she disagrees with—goes through the most dramatic character arc in the film, this is really Goldberg’s showcase. Her performance is nuanced and subtle, with a mere glance communicating a deep spectrum of internal emotion. She knew exactly how she felt long before Rosa Parks was ever arrested, and her performance is drenched in physical and mental exhaustion. It’s the sort of exhaustion that kickstarted the boycott in the first place, with a peaceful gesture of resistance from a fed-up 42-year-old woman. Odessa and her husband—a pre-Pulp Fiction, slimmer Ving Rhames—represent a movement that was not yet dominated by youth activists, as it would be in the ’60s, but by frustrated workers who were willing to walk 10 miles to work for as long as it took (as it would turn out, just over a year) to show white Birmingham how much a better future for their children meant to them.

There’s a subtle but very deliberate measure taken by the screenplay that protects Miriam’s arc from veering into White Savior territory: When she expresses her interest to aid in the boycott, Odessa tells her, very plainly, “This boycott will survive without you.” And she’s right—the boycott is a well-oiled machine, and though Miriam takes an active role in supporting it, none of her actions inform its eventual outcome. It’s never about the boycott needing her—it’s the other way around—and it’s a better movie for it.

A lot more could be written about this movie, and how it successfully avoids a lot of trappings that similar films would fall victim to, but you should watch it instead. It’s quite the unknown gem, and it looks great, too (it’s shot by Roger Deakins). 

While segregation on buses would be declared unconstitutional with the ruling of Browder v. Gayle in 1956, the civil rights movement was just getting under way, and it would be in full swing a decade later.

2) The Watsons Go to Birmingham (2013)

Don’t be fooled by the cover of The Watsons Go to Birmingham when you’re browsing through titles on Netflix—it’s definitely one of the All-Time Worst, but there’s a really great movie hiding behind it. It’s a period piece, with a loosely structured plot that focuses on a single family in a very autobiographical fashion, and that gives it an undeniable A Christmas Story vibe. But, as the family here is black and the setting is Birmingham in 1963, there’s a much greater amount of ever-looming danger than what’s found in that holiday fare.

The Watsons are fairly well-off—they live in Flint, Mich., but decide to spend a summer with the children’s grandmother in Birmingham for a change of scenery and to allow their mother to reconnect with her hometown. The film is based on the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, and the family feels very real and quite fun. The family is constantly joking with one another, their banter is always witty and exciting, and the first act thankfully sticks around with them in Flint for the audience to grow familiar with their dynamic. You feel close to them by the time they set off for Alabama.

When the family stops in a diner on their way to Birmingham, they’re waited on by a smiling white waitress, and when they tell her where they’re going, a concerned look comes across her face. She says, very genuinely, “Y’all be careful, all right?” On the road, they hear a news report on the radio about President Kennedy fighting to cut federal funding for states practicing segregation and then a report about “another bombing in Birmingham.” It feels, at this point, like The Watsons Go to Birmingham is setting itself up as a horror film.

It turns out that, despite a couple of horrific scenes, the film maintains its status as a family drama throughout the running time, albeit one set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

Like The Long Walk Home, the plot here largely spends its time on the periphery of the main action, but there are differences in the civil rights movement here, 10 years later. For one, bombings are a regular thing. An explosion will interrupt a conversation, and it’s not even a big deal—a native to Birmingham will simply squint a bit and say, “It’s OK, that sounded at least a couple miles away.” Another big difference is the youth involvement. The Watson children’s cousins tell them about how their teacher turned their back on the day of a big march, and students left their classes in mass to join in on the famous protests, organized by Rev. King, in which the goal of each protester was to be arrested without resistance. The film breaks away during this story, switching to 8mm and 16mm documentary-esque footage of that protest, and shows a church before the march began. A preacher instructs everybody to put anything that could be interpreted as a weapon by the police, including large combs, into a basket sitting in front of the pews. It’s a detail that makes you realize just how much these protests had their shit together and how their strategies were crafted and goals defined in ways that would never happen again, especially with such total precision, in a mass movement in the United States. 

On the first day of this particular march (called D-Day), 900 protesters were arrested—a big success for the movement. On the second day (Double D-Day), the police released dogs on the marchers, and the fireman turned hoses on them. One of the cousins, a young girl, shows the children a scar on her knee from that second day—a protest that had evoked great violence from the city’s infrastructure solely because its black citizens were congregating and voicing their concerns.

The Watson children are amazed at the segregated movie theaters and water fountains, and they’re confused when at a diner that mirrors the one up north, they’re told, in very plain terms, that “their kind” won’t be served there. But, as bad as things are, when the famous march on Washington, D.C., happens that summer, and they watch it on television with their grandmother, she reminds them that they “have no idea how lucky [they] are” when she sees the 200,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument. Yes, things are bad, but she’s old enough to remember a time when nobody was demanding that they get better—and she clearly remembers those times being worse.

The Watsons come face-to-face with the white-perpetrated violence that’s been occurring in the near distance in the last 20 minutes of the film, and it’s a heartbreaking scene—but the overall message is more concerned with the psychological consequences of this sort of violence than it is with the blunt physicality of it. Although it contains heavy subject matter, I wouldn’t think the film would be inappropriate for any kid over 6 years old. There are implications of bloody events, but it’s never gory—it did, after all, originally air on the Hallmark Channel—and it’s probably a better film to introduce a child to the civil rights movement with than the one that introduced me to it (more on that later). 

If you’re an adult, don’t let its cover (or the trailer) fool you into thinking this is a schmaltzy movie that won’t affect your cynical heart. I won’t say that I teared up in the last five minutes, but…well, I won’t say that I did, and let’s leave it at that.

3) The American Experience: 1964 (2014)

Of course, there’s a very legitimate concern among historians regarding the extent to which our historical knowledge is defined by watching narrative features, which may contain an inherent dramatic bias built into their foundation; after all, while it’s certainly possible for a narrative feature to educate and expand the mind, its ultimate purpose is to entertain.

This documentary pairs well with the previous two entries, and it’s a good primer to weigh any narrative feature set in the civil rights movement against. Anybody wondering if the racial inequality seen in films like The Watsons Go to Birmingham is exaggerated needs to watch a documentary, like this one, to confirm that things were actually far, far worse.

Many historians mark the start of ’64 at the assassination of President Kennedy in late ’63; in turn, The American Experience: 1964 opens with Lyndon Johnson being sworn in, making such bold and reassuring statements as “I will do my best. That is all that I can do.” Fortunately, Johnson’s best turned out to be really good (on the civil rights front, anyway), with him somehow managing to persuade 27 Republican voters to cross the aisle and pass the Civil Rights Act. It was a monumental, revolutionary bill, and a righteous blow to the face of evil itself, but Johnson was unable to back this massive stride in civil rights with adequate federal protection, which resulted in a great deal of death and mayhem at the hands of angry white yokels.

Race relations in ’64 can probably be adequately represented by the documentary’s coverage of three Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members who were murdered in Mississippi. The three members—two white, one black—were visiting a black church that had just been burnt to the ground, and, upon leaving, somebody tipped off the police that they were on the road. They were promptly falsely arrested for speeding, thrown in jail, and then released in the middle of the night into the presence of Klansmen, who murdered them. The three missing students were major news, and President Johnson was livid, demanding that J. Edgar Hoover use the FBI to find the bodies and the murderers by any means necessary; the entire nation eagerly awaited a break in the case. With great regularity, in the course of the investigation, bodies were found. When they’d fail to identify the bodies as one of the three missing SNCC members, the nation would collectively sigh, and the search would continue.

But here’s the rub: While the media was indeed fired up over these young men being murdered, and the dire situation in Mississippi in general, it was still being extremely racist in its handling of the story—the most newsworthy aspect of all these mystery bodies was that they weren’t the missing white students. The non-news of the mystery bodies had tragic implications: Turning up massive amounts of black bodies in the woods and in riverbeds was just something to be expected when poking around in Mississippi. There’s something farcical about an investigator finding his 12th body, nonchalantly saying “nope, this isn’t them, either,” and then casually brushing it aside—but that was how the investigation went down.

The documentary also covers the campaign of Barry Goldwater—a sort of proto-Ted Cruz/Ron Paul hybrid—plus the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s place on the political stage and the transformation of the Republican party into the apeshit circus that would end up electing Richard Nixon four years later. It also features extensive, fascinating interviews and footage of David Dennis, a colleague of MLK and a major leader in the civil rights movement. It is not possible to watch this man speak without goosebumps appearing on your skin.

The film is a good reminder of the rest of the headlines from ’64, too: the Beatles coming to America and destroying everything psychologists had come to believe about the young female brain, the rise of Muhammad Ali from the ashes of Cassius Clay, and the advent of second-wave feminism with Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique becoming a best-seller after its release two years prior. The book started an entirely new line of thinking by defining—but not quite classifying—what it called “the problem that has no name.” It explored the quandary that, despite having the right deodorant, figure-toning soft drinks, and female-proof tires, women were generally unhappy and lacked a sense of fulfillment—and adding extra appliances and/or children to their lives wasn’t helping. Whereas first-wave feminism had tackled suffrage and constitutional rights, the second wave took issue with the insane underrepresentation of women in the workplace and took aim at the country’s shoehorning of women into roles they didn’t necessarily want.

While it was met with laughter from Congress when introduced, and didn’t end up being enforced very well, an amendment to prohibit gender discrimination was successfully added to and passed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

4) Forrest Gump (1994 )

This is a film that’s faced no shortage of flak over the years, but that—and its status as the ultimate Dad Movie—has been previously covered extremely well by Britt Hayes over here, so I’ll skip that and just say this: Forrest Gump is my very first memory, at 6 or 7 years old, of being aware of the civil rights movement at all. At that age, watching Gump with my parents, I remember being confused and asking them why these people were being treated differently. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I do know, for sure, that it was the opposite of “well, things were better back in those days.”

In Gump’s travels through American history, his encounter with the civil rights movement is largely limited to his time at the University of Alabama, when Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the university to symbolically block the entrance of its first black students. In 1972, Wallace would briefly have a slim, but nonetheless legitimate—after gaining sympathy by being shot while campaigning—chance at nabbing the nomination to be the Democratic presidential candidate. So, just 43 years ago, we could have had a Democrat running for president that once took it upon himself to stand in front of black students to prevent them from entering a college. 

There are people who are somehow under the impression that racial discrimination ended a very, very long time ago, and it really didn’t—just 52 years ago, there was no federal law banning segregation, which means that there are still a whole lot of people alive today who actually remember that. 

At any rate, I felt that I owed Forrest Gump a mention for introducing me to the civil rights movement at a young age—when I knew that Martin Luther King had made a speech but didn’t really grasp its context—and encouraging me to learn more by speaking to my parents.

Also: Thank you, parents.

Photo via Nisha Jones/Wikipedia (CC BY SA 3.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 4, 2015, 12:00 pm CST