With the upcoming release of Lee Daniels' The Butler, the portrayal of civil rights onscreen is at the forefront of public discussion. And while classic films like Malcolm X and Mississippi Burning come to mind when we think of movie depictions of the fight for civil rights, The Butler looks like it will take a different approach by presenting the movement through the story of one person. It's not the first to do so. Here are four films that beautifully portray the fight for civil rights.
A civil rights film masquerading as a sports story, Remember the Titans is a classic for numerous reasons. It may be the typical Disney story of a ragtag group of underdogs who overcome obstacles to win, but the obstacles this group faces are anything but typical. It’s a stark reminder of how recently segregation was legal, as this film is set in the 1970s. And it’s based on true events to boot. The film checks all of the right boxes to be considered a touching sports drama, but it does so while portraying a grave situation for these young men. They struggle every day as they battle other teams, the town, and even each other. But as the team comes together, so does the community and attitudes are slowly changed. With a great performance from Denzel Washington, Remember the Titans tackles the issues of civil rights with elegance, using football as a microcosm for the evolution of America.
The adaptation of the Harper Lee classic isn’t your typical civil rights tale. Rather, To Kill a Mockingbird provides a lens through which we can view civil rights at its most personal level. While there is a lot going on, the central conflict of the film is the trial of a young black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman despite clear evidence of his innocence. Robinson, who is eventually murdered, is said to be modeled after Emmett Till, a black man killed in a similar manner and a major catalyst for the civil rights movement. The true beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird, however, resides in its use of Scout. Scout, the young daughter of Atticus Finch (Robinson's lawyer), experiences these events with an unadulterated view of the world, allowing us to see the events of the film without the bias of an adult. Her character allows us to see how truly tragic and absurd the events of the film are. To Kill a Mockingbird shows just how racism affects everyone it touches and how the civil rights movement was important even on the smallest of scales.
There is a lot of criticism surrounding The Help’s portrayal of civil rights, specifically its use of a white heroine to portray a largely black issue. But while in theory, The Help is the story of white Skeeter as she befriends the black domestic workers and writes their story in a dramatic exposé, in practice the movie charts the stories of two very different women. Aibileen and Minnie, two of the maids Skeeter writes about, are the true heart of the film. They go from meek servants who accept their lot in life to empowered women. The Help succeeds in its portrayal of the civil rights movement by humanizing it, all the while using the perfect combination of drama and humor, not to mention Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning performance. Skeeter is not some savior — it’s Aibileen and Minnie who save themselves.
Most people associate civil rights with African Americans, but really the fight for civil rights extends to all marginalized groups including women. Women’s rights is an important issue which North Country tackles with great success. The film, starring Charlize Theron, follows the events leading up to a landmark class action law suit that changed the face of sexual harassment legislation. While I could have included films about the suffragette movement, North Country does what so many other films on this list do, namely portray a national issue on a personal scale. Theron’s Josey, in trying to escape an abusive relationship, takes a job in a mine. The results are not promising as she is the subject of hostile behavior from the outset. Josey has to overcome ingrained sexism and threats of physical violence not only to change attitudes and legislation, but also to merely survive. Her fight to ensure women are safe in their own workplace echo what a lot of women were going through at the time, and sadly still are.
Save the best for last. Malcolm X may be an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. It charts the life of one of the most important and controversial figures of modern times. While Martin Luther King has become the most globally famous leader of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X was just as prominent. His style was markedly different from King’s and the film explores how he got there and what it meant for the world he was trying to change. Under the direction of Spike Lee, this film portrays civil rights in the best way it can — from the perspective of those fighting for them. It also doesn’t pull any punches, portraying Malcolm X as the flawed individual he was. It is the politically charged biopic we expect, but it’s also so beautifully written and well-acted (you were robbed, Denzel). Malcolm X is a classic for a reason and should be mandatory for all those who value civil rights history.