As we celebrate African Heritage Month, we look back on the heroes of the civil rights movement, an ongoing struggle that has made great strides toward justice and continues today. Here is a selection of books that have been adapted into memorable films about this revolution.
To accompany the movie Selma, the Oscar-nominated retelling of one event in the inspirational life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo), check out the documentary King: a filmed record—Montgomery to Memphis. Without a narrator, this documentary consists of Dr. King’s stirring speeches and sermons, allowing archival footage and sound recordings to speak for themselves. For non-fiction works, there are many excellent explorations of King’s life and legacy (see some of them at this post). For a book that looks at just a small snapshot of his life, try Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King: the real story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final year. This book recounts the events in the twelve months leading up to Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, showing all the setbacks he had to move past in order to lead the civil rights movement.
Civil rights leader Malcolm X’s autobiography was written with the assistance of journalist Alex Haley (who penned the family saga Roots, which itself was adapted into the television miniseries Roots). The Autobiography of Malcolm X inspired director Spike Lee to take on the challenge of a film adaptation in the biopic Malcolm X. Starring Denzel Washington in the mesmerizing lead role, this story chronicles Malcolm X’s troubled childhood and six years in prison, ministry with the Nation of Islam, advocacy for black pride, and work as a human rights activist until his assassination in 1965. For more about Malcolm X and Dr. King’s legacy after their tragic assassinations, try the film Betty and Coretta, about the men’s wives, Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, respectively played by Mary J. Blige and Angela Basset.
On Monday, February 16, we observed Nova Scotia Heritage Day, celebrating local heroes like Viola Desmond, a human rights activist who was arrested for challenging racial segregation in a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946 by refusing to leave a whites-only section of the theatre. Her bravery eventually led to an end to segregation in Nova Scotia. For a documentary about Viola Desmond, try Long Road to Justice: the Viola Desmond story. For a fuller biography of Desmond, check out Sister to Courage: stories from the world of Viola Desmond, Canada’s Rosa Parks, written by Wanda Robson, Desmond’s youngest sister, about the family and world that shaped both of them and their other siblings.
Rosa Parks is considered by many to be Desmond’s counterpart in the U.S. because of Parks’ arrest after refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger in 1955. Her act of defiance became a powerful symbol that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped lead to the bus segregation law being declared unconstitutional. Her life was documented in the biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis. Check out the film The Rosa Parks Story, starring Angela Basset, for a dramatic adaptation.
Finally, the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, is based on the story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who saw eight presidents come and go during more than 30 years of service starting in 1957. This movie was based on a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood called “A Butler Well Served by This Election” and accompanied the release of Haygood’s book The Butler: a witness to history.