The 31st anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers a work-free break for many people. But instead of binge-watching the latest superhero series on Netflix, here’s an opportunity to learn more about a real hero.
A rich bounty of cinematic material is dedicated to the slain civil rights leader, from features to documentaries to TV miniseries.
Here are 10 notable projects about King’s memorable life that make for worthwhile viewing.
“Selma” A recent critical and box-office hit, Ava DuVernay’s film chronicles King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., as a protest against voter discrimination. The 2014 Oscar winner (for Common and John Legend’s song “Glory”) features a stellar lead performance by David Oyelowo, who sets a new standard with his uncanny portrayal in voice and demeanor. The cast also includes Kansas City’s Trai Byers as James Forman, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose character doubts the effectiveness of King’s peaceful tactics. Available on DVD.
“King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis” This 1970 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary consists almost exclusively of archival footage — marches, interviews, sermons and press conferences — with no narration. It spans the period from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott through the 1968 assassination. Assembled by Hollywood legends Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, there’s also an expanded version that inserts celebrities ranging from Harry Belafonte to Charlton Heston delivering dramatic interpretations of period speeches regarding King’s work. Available on DVD.
“Boycott” A cast that includes Jeffrey Wright as King and Terrence Howard as close confidant Ralph Abernathy powers this HBO film based on the book “Daybreak of Freedom.” It gives a behind-the-scenes look at the bus boycott, in which King rallied black citizens into walking to their jobs instead of using public transportation, revealing how such actions took a personal toll beyond the newsreel coverage. This program won a Peabody Award for “refusing to allow history to slip into ‘the past.’ ” Available on DVD.
“King” Aired on NBC over three consecutive nights in 1978, the miniseries benefits from commanding performances by Emmy nominees Paul Winfield as the title character and Cicely Tyson as wife Coretta Scott King. Despite a few historical inaccuracies and a skewed depiction of the Kennedys (Cliff De Young portrays RFK as a seething weasel), the production was among the first to truly humanize the civil rights leader, showing his fears and insecurities along with his charisma and strength. Available on Amazon.com and YouTube.com.
“Our Friend, Martin” Wanting to find a way to introduce kids to Dr. King? “Our Friend, Martin” serves up an animated tale about a 12-year-old boy named Miles who would rather play baseball than study. He begrudgingly goes on a field trip to King’s childhood home-turned-museum. While there, Miles gets transported back in time to meet “Martin” at key points in his life. The Emmy-nominated production boasts a loaded celebrity voice cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg and KC’s own Ed Asner. Available on Amazon.com and YouTube.com.
“The March” Also known as “The March to Washington,” this 1964 documentary scrutinizes one of America’s largest human rights rallies. This was the occasion where King gave his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 250,000 supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Interestingly, “The March” was made by filmmaker James Blue for the Motion Picture Service unit of the United States Information Agency for use outside the country. Until 1990, it was illegal to show the film domestically without a special act of Congress. Available on OpenCulture.com
“In Remembrance of Martin” The PBS program was taped in 1986 on the first day that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed. The hour-long special harvests memories from King’s family and friends. The informal storytelling is conducted with a tremendous roster that features Coretta Scott King, Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Joan Baez … and Bill Cosby. Available on Amazon.com and YouTube.com.
“The Boy King” King’s childhood in 1930s Atlanta provides the backdrop for stories about his first encounters with racism and his family upbringing that helped shape his future career. Howard E. Rollins Jr. (“Ragtime”) portrays King Sr., with various actors playing King Jr. at different stages of his life. The project has a unique origin, starting as a stage play at an Atlanta children’s theater, then being adapted into this movie by a local TV station. Eventually, it was nationally syndicated and went on to earn a Peabody Award. Available on Amazon.com.
“King: Man of Peace in a Time of War” While this 2007 documentary contains rare material such as a disapproving tirade by Malcolm X during an interview about King, the centerpiece of the one-hour video is a complete 1967 appearance King made on “The Mike Douglas Show.” It’s already rare to see the icon in conversation during a talk show environment, but it’s equally surreal when staged on a groovy set that looks like it could double for “The Dating Game.” Available on Amazon and Hulu.
“The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306” This Oscar-nominated short documentary was released in 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assassination. The title refers to the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where a gunman fatally shot King. Filmmaker Adam Pertofsky culls an intimate eyewitness account from the late Samuel Billy Kyles, who was standing just a few feet away from the civil rights hero when it occurred. The picture also provides a clearer understanding of the mission King was on to improve the lives of sanitation workers in the city where he met his demise. Available on YouTube.com.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”