12 Unmissable Civil Rights Movies - Raindance

As any art form, film has a huge political impact, given the right content, the right execution and the right release. And it’s not just narrative films, but also the ads you can see on TV, on your phone or on the screens in the Tube. Some filmmakers are more political than others, through their work or their commitment outside the screen, and by shedding some light on the past, movies can give insight into the present. So here are 12 civil rights movie you should watch.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

American hero Atticus Finch has been a towering figure in US literature ever since the release of the book, and Gregory Peck enshrined it in celluloid. Now that Go Set A Watchman has been released, it’s good to go back to this story of doing what is right versus what is required, racial heroism -and also simply a great movie.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967)

This is the last of the many Tracy-Hepburn collaborations, and one of the most iconic, loaded with political messages about racial equality in America. Featuring the two stars as a liberal couple whose daughter wants to marry a black man. They have to face their contradictions between their political activism and the reality of what is happening inside their house. It was released only six months after laws banning interracial marriage were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Norma Rae (1979)

This beautiful film earned Sally Field an Oscar for her performance as a woman who tries to hold together her personal life and work as she starts a union fight for her co-workers whose health might be compromised. It’s equally enthralling in its dealing of the workplace problematic as it is about female empowerment.

Gandhi (1982)

This sweeping epic is an extraordinary exploration of an icon of the twentieth century. Played by Ben Kingsley under Richard Attenborough’s direction, we follow Gandhi from all the way to the day of his assassination. It is as much about his fight for his country at it is a complex portrait of a man whose spirit goes further than the legend.

Cry Freedom (1987)

Richard Attenborough teamed with the great Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington to show apartheid in South Africa, and the fight led by activist Steve Biko to point out the injustices of the system. To give perspective, it was released at a time when discussions hadn’t started yet about releasing Nelson Mandela from prison.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

It was released over twenty years after the events it depicts, and was a good reminder of where America came from. As we follow two detectives, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, investigating the murder of three civil rights activists in the American South, we get a precise idea of the atmosphere and the reality of how far institutionalised racism can go.

Philadelphia (1993)

Over ten years after the HIV/AIDS epidemic had started in the US, Jonathan Demme finally gave it a name on the big screen. As a man living with AIDS who gets fired because of his condition, Tom Hanks gave a stunning performance with a drastic weight loss. Added realism comes from the fact that several AIDS patients appeared as extras for hospital scenes. It’s a gripping tale not just about AIDS, but also about the ramifications of pervasive latent homophobia in society, at work and in family.

Harvey Milk (2008)

As it has most always been, big cities have been a safe haven for gay people to find a community. San Francisco is just about the safest haven of all, and in no small part thanks to the perennial influence of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The movie tells a story that’s always good to go back to, but mirrored current events at the time of its release (discussion on marriage equality on California and the infamous Prop 8), and gave it even more impact. Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for his script, as did Sean Penn for his performance.

Invictus (2009)

This is a broader picture than civil rights, as it is not about a minority trying to reclaim its rights, strictly speaking. It’s about a country struggling with its fresh racial wounds, and how communities and all ethnicities have to come together in order to improve things. That coupled with the power of sport to engage people in a way that transcends race or social situations gave Clint Eastwood a powerful story which he told with his usual restraint and ability.

Selma (2014)

Not unlike Milk, Selma mirrored the time it was released in. Selma was about black people starting riots in the 60’s to earn their right to live. Fifty years later, Selma hit theatres and black people were starting riots for their right to live in Ferguson, Missouri. The movie gave fuel to the conversation, and visibility to the community. Incidentally, it was one of the best movies of the year, and was directed by an African-American woman who was famously snubbed from the Oscars. The picture won for Best Song.

The Normal Heart (2014)

This is a weeper, but a necessary watch. AIDS has just struck the gay community in New York, and people are dying by the handful. Not only does activist Ned Weeks have to fight against the government, he also has to fight against his community who doesn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of this epidemic. This film stars huge names such as Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and many more. It sent the conversation back to the first days of the AIDS epidemic as marriage equality was being debated, and helps give a perspective on the fight for LGBT equality?

Dear White People (2015)

This is film could serve as an inspiration for you indie filmmakers. Director Justin Simien wrote the script and promoted his crowdfunding campaign through social media. He raised $40,000 instead of the planned $25,000. Studios got interested, but Simien decided to remain independent, which speaks to the virtues of independence and low budget. That’s just the production: the movie itself raises all the tough question and is fearless in articulating wise responses. Through a number of characters who all struggle with racism in different forms, we get a picture of how pervasive it is, and most importantly, how we all can fight back.

As a bonus, this short film created by Milk screenwriter and LGBT rights activist Dustin Lance Black, in partnership with Coca Cola, which is part of campaign against bullying.

These are just a few of the many films that have been made to raise awareness on civil rights issues, and I’ve probably left out some of your favourites. Share in the comments !



Baptiste is a writer hailing from the part of France where it is always sunny. After a stint in politics and earning his Master's Degree in Management, he was a marketing intern for the 23rd Raindance Film Festival in 2015, then joined the team permanently in 2016 as the Registrar of the MA in Filmmaking. He is passionate about diversity in film, which he researches and writes about extensively. He is the producer of the hit webseries "Netflix & Kill" and the multi-award-winning short film "Alder", as well as a writer for stage and screen. His short film "U Up?" is currently in pre-production.