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Documentaries to Watch: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Updated 2023)

By Mitch Kampf

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Photo by  Yoichi Okamoto. Public Domain.

This Monday, we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Check out our curated list of documentary films and series on Dr. King and the civil rights era. 

MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

The 2021 feature documentary by Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard. MLK/FBI is the first film to uncover the extent of the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on newly discovered and declassified files, the documentary explores the government's history of targeting Black activists, and the contested meaning behind some of our most cherished ideals.

Watch it in theaters, VOD, or via the IDA Documentary Screening Series (starting Jan 20, 2021).

Eyes on the Prize (PBS)

Originally broadcast on PBS as a 14-part documentary series, Eyes on the Prize follows the American civil rights movement from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision through the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the first African-American mayor of Chicago. The series, through archival footage and interviews with participants and opponents of the movement, paints a vivid portrait of a shifting American society with incredible depth.

Watch it on Kanopy.


King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet)

The first and only documentary ever directed by Sidney Lumet, King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis follows King from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 all the way through his assassination in 1968. Opting to use unretouched original newsreel and other primary material, Lumet brings viewers directly into Dr. King's crusade. The result is a renowned film that both appreciates the personal challenges Dr. King endured and the cultural legacy he left behind.

Watch it on Kanopy.


King in the Wilderness (Peter Kunhardt)

Picking up in the film years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, Peter Kunhardt’s King in the Wilderness follows the civil rights leader’s struggle to hold together principles of non-violent protest in an increasingly violent era and the resulting criticism he received from all sides of the political spectrum. Conversing with those close to Dr. King, including some of his contemporaries at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King in the Wilderness offers a closer look at King as a human being struggling to make the world a better place.

Watch it on HBO.


Soundtrack for a Revolution (Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman)

Tracing the civil rights movement from the perspective of young African-American activists, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Soundtrack for a Revolution focuses on the power music had within the movement and at this time in American history. Pulling in contemporary artists such as John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean and The Roots, the film acts as a modern reflection on the power of music and how it shaped the children of the civil rights era.

Watch it on Vudu, Sundance Now, iTunes

2023 Update ––

Bayard & Me (Matt Wolf)

Bayard & Me is a short doc about how the openly gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, best known for organizing the March on Washington and advising Martin Luther King Jr., adopted his partner Walter Naegle in the 1980s for legal protections. In this story, Walter remembers Bayard and how they had to work around the system decades before gay marriage was legalized. He also reflects on intergenerational gay adoption and its connection to the civil rights movement. Watch on Vimeo.

Bonus Fiction Film: Rustin (George C. Wolf)

Not a documentary but an important work of fiction about Bayard Rustin, advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., who dedicated his life to the quest for racial equality, human rights, and worldwide democracy. However, as an openly gay Black man, his name was erased from the civil rights movement he helped build. Watch on Netflix.


This post was originally published on 1/18/2019 by Mitch Kampf, and updated on 1/15/2024 by Zaferhan Yumru.