Storytelling. It’s how we communicate across time. The greater a person’s story, the more often you’re likely to hear it told. There is no greater indication of a figure’s impact on a society than the continued analysis and mythologization of their legacy. Since his tragic assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. has remained one of the most iconic figures in American history—an intimately studied activist whose great works and moral crusade are at the heart of countless films, shows, books, and songs. His speeches. His marches. His perseverance in the face of great opposition. King secured his place in the history books as a brave crusader for justice and the compassionate leader of a community that had long been oppressed, but he was also a complex man who did more with his 39 years than most do in a lifetime. Because of this, we remain as compelled by his character as his words, and he continues to inspire artists who carry his moral crusade into the new century.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s a taste of some of the best work honoring the man and his legacy.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey
Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film centers around the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. In building up to the final historical march, she delves into the turbulence of the time, using the complex relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President B. Lyndon Johnson as a foil. The film takes a microscope to the non-violent voting-rights demonstration, which was intended to defy those repression tactics that at the time made it more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for people of color to vote. Anchored by a stirring performance from David Oyelowo, DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film chronicles King’s fight to have Johnson push the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress.
I Am MLK Jr. (2018)
(Rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)
Director: John Barbisan, Michael Hamilton
Writers: John Barbisan, Ian Craig Walker
Cast: Martin Luther King Jr. (archival footage), John Lewis, Carmelo Anthony, Nick Cannon, Van Jones, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton
Using archival footage of Dr. King and newer interviews with those affected by his life and works, I Am MLK Jr. seeks to explore the life of the civil rights leader and his impact on the public through the present day. By weaving through some key events from his public life, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Birmingham Campaign, this feature-length documentary shows how King used his greatest weapon—his words—to change hearts and minds. Demonstrating a legacy that survives to today, I Am MLK Jr. places an emphasis on the way King’s work has affected real people, not just the history books. And by chronicling his public journey through its untimely end, the documentary places greater context on MLK’s Movement as a whole.
(Rent it on Amazon or iTunes.)
Eyes on the Prize (1987)
Creator: Henry Hampton
Writers: Steve Fayer, Callie Crossley, James A. DeVinney, Judith Vecchione, Orlando Bagwell, Sheila Curran Bernard, Sam Pollard
Cast: Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson
Narrated by Julian Bond, Henry Hampton’s enduring 14-part documentary series chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century through archival footage and timely interviews. The first part of the series depicts the period between the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. In the second installment, the docuseries covers the time between Malcolm X’s appearance on the national stage to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the first African American mayor of Chicago. The series garnered six Emmy Awards, several Peabody Awards, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature (for episode six—Bridge to Freedom—produced by Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney). Fans of the docuseries should be sure to check out the companion book, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965, put together by the producers and publishing staff at Blackside, Inc. with the help of Juan Williams from The Washington Post.
(Watch on HBO Max with subscription.)
In addition to the Eyes on the Prize companion volume, there are many amazing books that delve deeper into Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. While there is clearly no shortage of options, here are a few to get you started.
Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life by Marshall Frady
A nuanced look at Dr. King, his complexities, his accomplishments, and his faults, by a reporter who assumed the role as the unofficial documentarian of the civil rights movement. Frady deconstructs King’s myth against the backdrop of Black America’s long struggle for equality, painting a detailed picture of the man’s legacy.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3rhP6Zg
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson
A 400-page book that weaves together thousands of recordings and documents such as diary entries and personal letters, Carson’s tome does a wonderful job of illustrating Martin Luther King Jr. as a human being, father, son, husband, and civil rights leader. For those of you who still own a CD player, this collection even contains two discs containing King’s iconic speeches.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3rhPgQm
I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World Edited by James M Washington This book is essential reading for the simple fact that editor James M. Washington allows MLK’s words to speak for themselves. Gifted an orator as King was, the years have only proven that his well-crafted speeches and writings were even more effective than society may have known at the time. With four simple words—I have a dream—the emotional King changed the course of American history for the better. Presented in a powerful chronology that highlights the Movement he led, his collected writings and speeches illustrate why.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3zWri0V
And for readers of all ages, be sure to check out these great books.
Children of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
This award-winning book looks at the birth of the civil rights movement from a child’s perspective, showing how one child handled a world where some had rights and privileges she did not, and how that would lead her family to follow “Uncle Martin” (Martin Luther King Jr.) in the iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3nqVz2X
Happy Birthday Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo
Paired with beautiful scratchboard and oil pastel illustrations, this book does a fantastic job of taking the reader through Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and his quest for peace and equality in a plainspoken way that people of all ages can understand and enjoy.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3nqYLeZ
March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris
Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister pays tribute to her lost brother by recounting the speech he made at the March on Washington—a speech that changed America.
Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3zX48aN