To honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., these ten documentary films champion the ideals of freedom, social justice, and equality. The King Center’s strategic theme for 2024 is ‘Shifting the Culture Climate through the Study and Practice of Kingian Nonviolence.’ The movies listed here are all available to the Duke community, complements of Duke Libraries. Let’s watch, interrogate, contemplate, and celebrate!
KING: A FILMED RECORD… MONTGOMERY TO MEMPHIS
(dirs. Ely Landau & Richard Kaplan, 1970)
Presented in two episodes, and constructed from a wealth of archival footage, King is a monumental documentary that follows Dr. King from 1955 to 1968. Rare footage of his speeches, protests, and arrests are interspersed with scenes of other high-profile supporters and opponents of the cause, punctuated by heartfelt testimonials. King was originally presented as a one-night-only special event on March 20, 1970, at an epic length of more than three hours. Since that time, the film has only occasionally been circulated in a version shortened by more than an hour. Newly restored by the Library of Congress, in association with Richard Kaplan, and utilizing film elements provided by The Museum of Modern Art, the original version of King can again be seen in its entirety.
BROTHER OUTSIDER: THE LIFE OF BAYARD RUSTIN (dirs. Nancy Cates and Bennett Singer, 2002)
On November 20, 2013, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Who was this man? He was there at most of the important events of the Civil Rights Movement – but always in the background. Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin asks “Why?” It presents a vivid drama, intermingling the personal and the political, about one of the most enigmatic figures in 20th-century American history. One of the first “freedom riders,” an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the march on Washington, intelligent, gregarious and charismatic, Bayard Rustin was denied his place in the limelight for one reason – he was gay.
THE LOVING STORY (dir. Nancy Buirski, 2011)
On June 2, 1958, Richard Loving and his fiancée, Mildred Jeter, traveled from Caroline County, VA to Washington, D.C. to be married. Later, the newlyweds were arrested, tried, and convicted of the felony crime of miscegenation. Two young ACLU lawyers took on the Lovings case, fully aware of the challenges posed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor on June 12, 1967, which resulted in sixteen states being ordered to overturn their bans on interracial marriage.
SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME (dir. Sam Pollard, 2012)
Based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century. For most Americans this is entirely new history. Slavery by Another Name gives voice to the largely forgotten victims and perpetrators of forced labor and features their descendants living today.
SPIES OF MISSISSIPPI (dir. Dawn Porter, 2013)
In the spring of 1964, the civil rights community is gearing up for “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” during which hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly white student activists from the North will link up with mostly black freedom workers to accomplish what the Mississippi power structure fears the most: registering black people to vote. For the segregationists, Freedom Summer is nothing less than a declaration of war. Mississippi responds by swearing in hundreds of new deputies, stockpiling tear gas and riot gear, and preparing the jails for an influx of summer “guests.” But the most powerful men in the state have another weapon to fight integration. They have quietly created a secret, state-funded spy agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, answering directly to the Governor. During the height of the civil rights movement, sovereignty commission operatives employed a cadre of black operatives who infiltrated the movement, rooting out its future plans, identifying its leaders, and tripping up its foot soldiers. By gaining the trust of civil rights crusaders, they gathered crucial intelligence on behalf of the segregationist state.
AFRICAN AMERICANS: MANY RIVERS TO CROSS
(PBS, 6-part series, 2013)
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is an award-winning six-part Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series written and presented by Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The series is lauded for its extensive look into African-American history with the filmmaker collaborating with 30 historians for this project. It won an Emmy award in 2014 for Outstanding Historical Programming-Long Form.
THROUGH A LENS DARKLY: BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLE
(dir. Thomas Allen Harris, 2014)
The first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present, Through a Lens Darkly probes the recesses of American history by discovering images that have been suppressed, forgotten and lost. Bringing to light the hidden and unknown photos shot by both professional and vernacular African American photographers, the film opens a window into lives, experiences and perspectives of black families that is absent from the traditional historical canon. These images show a much more complex and nuanced view of American culture and society and its founding ideals. Inspired by Deborah Willis’s book Reflections in Black and featuring the works of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, Clarissa Sligh and many others, Through a Lens Darkly introduces the viewer to a diverse yet focused community of storytellers who transform singular experiences into a communal journey of discovery – and a call to action.
THE PRISON IN TWELVE LANDSCAPES (dir. Brett Story, 2016)
An examination of the prison and its place — social, economic and psychological — in American society. Excavates the often-unseen links and connections that prisons and our system of mass incarceration have on communities and industries all around us– from a blazing California mountainside where female prisoners fight raging wildfires to a Bronx warehouse that specializes in prison-approved care packages to an Appalachian coal town betting its future on the promise of new prison jobs to the street where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Includes interviews with ex-convicts, prisoners and people who live near prisons.
BREAKING THE SILENCE: LILLIAN SMITH (dir. Hal Jacobs, 2020)
Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was one of the first white southern authors to speak out against white supremacy and segregation. A child of the South, she was seen as a traitor to the South for her stance on racial and gender equality. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr., she used her fame after writing a bestselling novel (“Strange Fruit”) to denounce the toxic social conditions that repressed the lives and imaginations of both blacks and whites. With her lifelong partner Paula Snelling, she educated privileged white girls at her summer camp in north Georgia and tried to open their minds to a world of compassion and creativity.
AMERICAN JUSTICE ON TRIAL: PEOPLE V. NEWTON
(dirs.. Herb Ferrette & Andrew Abrahams, 2022)
American Justice On Trial tells the forgotten story of the death penalty case that put racism on trial in a U.S. courtroom in the fall of 1968. Huey P. Newton, Black Panther Party co-founder, was accused of killing a white policeman and wounding another after a predawn car stop in Oakland. Newton himself suffered a near-fatal wound. As the trial neared its end, J. Edgar Hoover branded the Black Panthers the greatest internal threat to American security. Earlier that year, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy rocked a nation already bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. As the jury deliberated Newton’s fate, America was a tinderbox waiting to explode. At his trial, Newton and his maverick defense team led by Charles Garry and his then rare female co-counsel Fay Stender, defended the Panthers as a response to 400 years of racism and accused the policemen of racial profiling, insisting Newton had only acted in self-defense. Their unprecedented challenges to structural racism in the jury selection process were revolutionary and risky. If the Newton jury came back with the widely expected first-degree murder verdict against the charismatic black militant, Newton would have faced the death penalty and national riots were anticipated. But Newton’s defense team redefined a “jury of one’s peers,” and a groundbreaking diverse jury headed by pioneering Black foreman David Harper delivered a shocking verdict that still reverberates today.