What to Stream This MLK Day Weekend: 'Selma,' '13th,' 'American Son,' and More
By Meredith B. Kile
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Friday, January 15, 2021, marks what would have been the 92nd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of America's most esteemed and visible activists in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, when he was just 39 years old, but his message and memory have carried on to this day, and are echoed by the ongoing efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, throughout the years, King's family and successors have been adamant that the Baptist pastor, who advocated for nonviolence and civil disobedience, be remembered by his full message and not mere platitudes.
"Dear politicians/political influencers: When you tweet about my father’s birthday, remember that he was resolute about eradicating racism, poverty & militarism," King's daughter, Bernice King, tweeted on Friday. "Encourage & enact policies that reflect your birthday sentiments.
Protests in response to racial injustice and police violence have sparked across the nation in recent years, with the latest large-scale demonstrations following the death of George Floyd last year. Many are also turning to movies, television, music and more to provide information, clarity and perhaps even necessary discomfort about the civil unrest and systemic injustices that have been a part of America since its very birth as a nation.
Over the past decade, a new generation of filmmakers have told stories of police brutality and racial injustice through real-life adaptations and groundbreaking documentaries, hoping to shape hearts and open eyes as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to push for change, reform and justice for all.
From groundbreaking directors like Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler; adapted from the works of James Baldwin, Bryan Stevenson and Angie Thomas; tackling topics like systemic racism, law enforcement bias and the prison-industrial complex, these are just a few of the recent works that have helped to tell the story of racial inequality in America.
The story of the man himself, Ava DuVernay's critically acclaimed and Academy-recognized breakthrough film tells the story of Dr. King (played by David Oyelowo) and the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. The film centers around the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the marchers were gassed and beaten by Alabama State Troopers. The aftermath of this march, which became known as Bloody Sunday, led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Selma was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Original Song -- "Glory," by Common and John Legend -- at the 87th Academy Awards. It also received four Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director and Best Actor, and won for Best Original Song.
Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, Barry Jenkins' adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk is a story about a love strong enough to overcome even the most heartbreaking adversity. The 2018 film features stunning breakout turns from KiKi Layne and Stephan James -- as a young couple torn apart by racial bias and the unjust legal system -- and an Oscar- and Golden Globe–winning supporting performance by Regina King.
If Beale Street Could Talk was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, and Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score at the 91st Academy Awards.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler made his stunning feature film debut with 2013's Fruitvale Station, which tells the real-life story of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), a young man who was killed in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 by police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale district station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Oakland, California.
The film, which also stars Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O'Reilly and Octavia Spencer, uses real footage from the night of Grant's death and a celebration of life ceremony his family held on New Year's Day 2013. Fruitvale Station won the award for Best First Film at the 66th Cannes Film Festival.
Named for the 13th Amendment -- which abolished slavery in the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime -- this documentary from director Ava DuVernay combines archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars in an examination of the U.S. prison system -- taking a close look at how America's history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration.
13th was nominated for eight Emmys and won four of them in 2017 -- Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Writing for Nonfiction Programs, Outstanding Motion Design, and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for “The Letter to the Free” by Common, Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins.
The 2019 film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton is based on a real-life story, starring Jamie Foxx as wrongfully convicted death row inmate Walter McMillian and Michael B. Jordan as defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, in a fight for justice against an unbalanced system. Just Mercy won four NAACP Image Awards, including honors for Foxx, Jordan, and the entire cast, and Foxx was nominated for a SAG Award for his portrayal of McMillian.
A limited series based on the story of the Exonerated Five, written and produced by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us details the mistreatment of Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray by the justice system after they were falsely accused and then prosecuted in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case.
When They See Us won 2 Emmys of its 16 nominations in 2019: Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special and Outstanding Lead Actor in Limited Series or Movie for Jharrel Jerome, who became the first Afro-Latino to ever win an acting Emmy.
Based on the Broadway play of the same name, American Son stars Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as an estranged couple who spend the night in a Miami police station in search of answers about their missing son, Jamal. Directed by Kenny Leon and written by the playwright, Christopher Demos-Brown, the film inspired many to reach out to Washington about how they've watched it to learn more about the themes of police brutality, racism and unconscious bias.
"It makes me so happy that people are watching #AmericanSon on @netflix to deepen their compassion and understanding," she shared in a message posted to Instagram last year, during the protests following the death of George Floyd.
Based on the bestselling 2017 young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a teen caught between the two worlds who witnesses the the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and stand up for what's right.
Co-starring Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Common, Anthony Mackie and Issa Rae, the film mirrors the real-life protests that have followed Floyd's death, and Hall told ET back in 2018 that reading the script made her think, "finally! ... It's not really a movement for us," she noted. "We've been telling y'all, 'Yo, we're getting shot, help!' for like, forever."
Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' 2017 documentary went on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, amid the protests that started after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown during a confrontation in August 2014. The film focuses on seven main characters, including Tory Russell, the cofounder of Hands Up United, Brittany Ferrell, a nurse and young mother, and David Whitt, a recruiter for civilian organization Cop Watch.
Whose Streets? premiered in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, then was released theatrically in August 2017, on the anniversary of Brown's death. It was a nominee for Critics' Choice and Gotham Independent Film awards.
Executive-produced by Shawn Carter aka JAY-Z and directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, this acclaimed six-part docuseries traces the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement from the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Claiming self-defense, Zimmerman was later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in July 2013.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Social Issue Documentary at the 40th News and Documentary Emmy Awards, and was a recipient for the 12th Television Academy Honors.
The 2016 documentary film directed by Raoul Peck is based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript Remember This House.
Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin's reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his personal observations of American history.
I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards and won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.
Directed by Göran Olsson, this 2011 documentary is made up of interview footage discovered by filmmakers in the cellar of Swedish Television nearly 30 years after it was filmed. It examines the evolution of the Black Power movement in American society in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with interviews and appearances from major figures of the movements like Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, intercut with commentary from modern figures like Erykah Badu, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte and more.
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 won theEditing Award – World Cinema-Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was honored at several other film festivals around the world.