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Top 10: Best Biopics About Civil Rights Leaders

From Malcolm X to Mahatma Gandhi, the fight for equality is never ending.

Civil Rights Leaders

Equality. The right to be free from unfair treatment or discrimination is a battle that has been going on for decades. Whether it’s the fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for voting rights, school integration, interracial marriage or basic rights for all, the fight for civil rights has been ripe for material for Hollywood.

While it is hard to find many solid biopics in the true sense of the term (those that aren’t made for TV movies or documentaries), there are many individuals who’s lives and stories have changed the world for the better and are deserving of being seen on the big screen (the likes of Robert Smalls, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, Langston Hughes, etc.). Here is a list of some of the 10 best biopics about civil rights leaders.

Honorable Mentions: “Selma” (2014), “Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996), “Hidden Figures”(2016), “Loving” (2016) and “The Birth of a Nation”(2019).

10. “42” (2013)
dir. Brian Helgeland

Image from the movie "42" 2013
© “42” 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures − All right reserved.

Starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, “42” is not only a great sports movie, but it tells the story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color line to become the first African-American Major League Baseball player. The film chronicles the adversity and racism he faced on a daily basis as he worked to change America’s national pastime. And to top it off, Boseman and Nicole Beharie shine as Jackie and Rachel Robinson along with Harrison Ford as the venerable Branch Rickey.

9. “The Best of Enemies” (2019)
dir. Robin Bissell

Image from the movie "The Best of Enemies" 2019
© “The Best of Enemies” 2019 Material Pictures − All right reserved.

While not an outright biopic, “The Best of Enemies” is a snapshot of time in the life of civil rights activist Ann Atwater as she fought for school integration in Durham, NC in 1971. Filled with a history that many people don’t know, and an all-star cast featuring Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell and Anne Heche, this one is worth the watch.

8. “Harriet” (2019)
dir. Kasi Lemmons

Image from the movie "Harriet"
© 2019 Focus Features − All right reserved.

“Harriet” tells the story of Harriet Tubman, who most are familiar with in name only, but don’t know her real story. This is the extraordinary tale of her escape from slavery and her transformation into a hero who helped free hundreds after her. With standout performances from Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monáe, “Harriet” is an Oscar-nominated film that should be watched by all.

7. “12 Years A Slave” (2013)
dir. Steve McQueen

Image from the movie "12 Years a Slave"
© 2013 New Regency Pictures − All right reserved.

If there was ever a story about overcoming adversity and injustice, the life of Solomon Northup is one. In “12 Years A Slave,” Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery during the antebellum. The winner of three Oscars, including Best Picture, this film is a tragic yet inspiring story about fight and determination, filled with moving and gut-wrenching performances from Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

6. “Marshall” (2017)
dir. Reginald Hudlin

Image from the movie "Marshall" 2017
© “Marshall” 2017 Chestnut Ridge − All right reserved.

One of the most influential minds of the civil rights movement, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall used his legal background to become a tireless fighter for equality. “Marshall” is the story of him as a young NAACP lawyer as he battles through one of his career-defining cases. And once again, Chadwick Boseman gives a convincing performance as the legal mastermind who would impact generations to come.

5. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013) dir. Justin Chadwick

Image from the movie "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"
© “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” − All right reserved.

This film chronicles Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood all the way through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. One of the more true biopics of the list, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is a stirring look at apartheid and the fight for equality in South Africa and Idris Elba anchors this film well.

4. “Milk” (2008)
dir. Gus Van Sant

Image from the movie "Milk"
© 2008 Groundswell Productions − All right reserved.

“Milk” is the moving story of Harvey Milk and his struggles to fight for gay rights as he becomes California’s first openly gay elected official. Sean Penn shines in his stirring, Oscar-winning performance as Milk. This is a great story encapsulated by great actors and told by a great filmmaker.

3. “Gandhi” (1982)
dir. Richard Attenborough

Image from the movie "Gandhi" 1982
© 1982 Goldcrest − All right reserved.

This is the epic story of a lawyer turned non-violent revolutionary in Mahatma Gandhi. The winner of eight Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director), “Gandhi” is history lesson that takes it a step further to show us all that any one is capable of fighting for justice and changing the world.

2. “Just Mercy” (2019)
dir. Destin Daniel Cretton

Image from the movie "Just Mercy"
© 2019 Netter Productions − All right reserved.

Unlike the other films on this list, “Just Mercy” is a story that is still being written. It is the story of renowned civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and his on-going fight for justice for those wrongly convicted. Starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, one of the death row prisoners that Stevenson has exonerated, “Just Mercy” is a much-needed look at the often racist fallibility of our criminal justice system and a call-to-action to bring about reform.

1. “Malcolm X” (1992)
dir. Spike Lee

Image from the movie "Malcolm X" 1992
© 1992 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks − All right reserved.

One of the seminal works of director Spike Lee, “Malcolm X” is the biographical epic of the controversial and influential slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. Nominated for two Oscars, this film is clearly a labor of love that is both educational and entertaining, and led to a memorable and iconic performance by Denzel Washington. This is a must watch biopic.

Are there biopics about civil rights leaders that you think should be on the list? Drop a line in the comments below.

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