A history book isn’t the only way to learn about the civil rights movement. A number of excellent documentaries chronicle the struggles blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans endured for racial equality. Such films feature interviews with activists who participated in the movement and archival footage of demonstrations in action. What better way to know what the civil rights movement was actually like than to watch movies that document the fight for social justice as it unfolded?
At 14 hours long, “Eyes on the Prize” is widely considered to be the most exhaustive accounting of the civil rights movement on screen. It documents the African-American fight for equality between the years of 1954 and 1985. The film not only stands out because of its length but also because it tells the story of the ordinary men and women who made actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success. The series does include its share of appearances by big names, including Coretta Scott King, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Ralph Abernathy and George Wallace. The series has earned several Emmy Awards, a George Foster Peabody Award, an International Documentary Award, and a Television Critics Association Award.
Four-part documentary series “Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” chronicles the fight the Latino community waged for equality in the 1960s. Top concerns of the Chicano Movement included restoration of land grants, the struggle of farm workers to unionize, quality education and voting rights for the Latino community. The documentary spotlights key figures in the movement such as Reies López Tijerina of the land grants movement, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales who defined Chicano identity through his writing, and César Chávez who fought for farm workers. “Chicano!” also devotes screen time to the formation of Chicano political party La Raza Unida and the Chicano youths who organized walkouts from Los Angeles schools.
César Chávez may be the most recognized historical figure in Mexican-American history but his life story hadn’t fully been told on screen until the release of “The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle.” The documentary features Chávez’s immediate family members as well as interviews with Ethel Kennedy, Jerry Brown and Dolores Huerta. Moreover, viewers learn how Chávez worked as a farm worker in his youth; how the support of his wife, Helen, allowed him to fully devote himself to the movement; and about his political alliance with Robert Kennedy. The film also highlights the critical 300-mile march Chávez led from Delano to Sacramento.
The Spike Lee documentary “4 Little Girls” chronicles the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala. The explosion took the lives of an 11-year-old and three 14-year-old African-American girls. Committed by racists threatened by the growing civil rights movement, the terrorist attack drove home how important the struggle for racial equality was. But the film doesn’t just trace the fight for civil rights, it also humanizes the bombing victims—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson. Viewers learn how the girls arrived at church early for choir practice, that Robertson was a Girl Scout and that McNair had tons of charisma. Interviews with the girls’ family members paint an all the more vivid portrait.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Fred Korematsu was a young welder in San Francisco with a white girlfriend. The son of Japanese immigrants, he had no idea the attack on Pearl Harbor would result in him being ordered into an internment camp. But that’s exactly what happened to an estimated 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent in the U.S. Rather than evacuate, Korematsu defied the order. When he was later arrested, he filed a lawsuit stating that his constitutional rights had been violated because of his race. The Supreme Court disagreed. Thirty-nine years later, a group of lawyers worked on his behalf to overturn his conviction. In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” documents the murder of a 14-year-old Chicago boy hunted down by white supremacists for allegedly flirting with a white woman during a trip to Mississippi. Emmett Till’s 1955 death spurred blacks across the nation to action. This is largely due to his mother, Mamie Till, who insisted on having an open casket at Till’s funeral so the world could see the savage assault her child endured at the hands of white racists. An all-white jury went on to acquit the men who reportedly abducted and slaughtered Emmett Till of murder, but the suspects confessed to the crime in a Look magazine interview. In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case.
In the “Freedom Riders,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells the story of the racially mixed group of 400 men and women who risked their lives in 1961 to end racial segregation in interstate travel. Although the Supreme Court had earlier ruled that segregation in interstate travel facilities violated the Constitution, Jim Crow remained alive and well on transport in Southern states. To draw attention to the problem, the Freedom Riders openly flouted Jim Crow by traveling together in mixed groups. For their defiance, they suffered attacks by white racist mobs and imprisonment in a penitentiary. The Freedom Riders declared victory in September 1961 when the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to segregation in bus and rail stations.