by Nathanael Arnold: A list of must-see inspirations films that cover humanitarian stories. 

Selma, a new Ava DuVernay-directed film about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, is scheduled to open nationwide in U.S. theaters on January 9, 2015, following its limited theatrical release on Christmas Day. As described on the official Selma website, the movie documents a volatile three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of nonviolent demonstrators on a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. The march helped push President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in America’s history.

Selma has garnered almost universally positive reviews, including a 100% Certified Fresh rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Variety film critic Scott Foundas singled out David Oyelowo’s performance as King as especially noteworthy, calling it “majestic” and “graceful.” Oyelowo is “uncanny at replicating King’s fiery public orations, but he’s even more impressive as the pensive, reflective, private King,” wrote Foundas.

The film co-stars Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Common as James Bevel, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Although Selma is about the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches that took place in 1965, the film is also a portrait of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With that in mind, here are six films about important human rights activists that you may want to see if you enjoyed Selma.

While the movies featured on this list were selected because of their subjects, they are ranked according to critics’ scores at Rotten Tomatoes, from lowest to highest, with awards info via IMDb

6. The Lady (2012)

Luc Besson, who is probably better known for directing over-the-top action movies like LucyThe Fifth Element, and La Femme Nikita, changed gears for this low-key biographical drama about Burmese pro-democracy and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi is well-known for her ongoing efforts to reform Myanmar’s oppressive military junta-controlled government and for her years of detention in the country while under house arrest.

The Lady focuses on Suu Kyi’s relationship with her late husband Michael Aris and the long period of separation that they had to endure due to her activism. In the film, Michelle Yeoh plays Aung San Suu Kyi, while David Thewlis plays Michael Aris. Despite its impressive heroine, The Lady currently only has a 33% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. However, the film garnered multiple awards from various international film festivals, including an International Human Rights Award for director Luc Besson from the Cinema for Peace Awards organization.

5. Cesar Chavez (2014)

Michael Peña stars as the title character in this Diego Luna-directed biopic about the famed American labor leader and human rights activist. In order to improve working conditions for farm workers, Chavez employed a nonviolence strategy similar to what was successfully used by activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The film depicts several of the major nonviolent campaigns led by Chavez, as well as his personal struggle to maintain his family commitments.

Besides Peña, the film also stars America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, Rosario Dawson as fellow labor leader Dolores Huerta, and John Malkovich as an oppressive grape farm owner. Cesar Chavez currently has a 41% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes who noted that the filmmakers may have been “Too in awe of its subject’s great works to present him as a human being.”

4. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Renowned human rights activist and former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela is the subject of this biopic directed by Justin Chadwick. The film tells the story of Mandela’s life from his rise as a political activist in apartheid-era South Africa, to his 27-year imprisonment and eventual election as the country’s president.Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom stars Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Irish rock band U2 wrote a song for the film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.

However, like many biopics about beloved leaders, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was criticized by some reviewers for idealizing its subject. The critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 59% approval rating and noted that “It might be too respectful to truly soar, but there’s no denying Idris Elba’s impressive work inMandela: Long Walk to Freedom — or the inspirational power of the life it depicts.”

3. Gandhi (1982)

This Richard Attenborough-directed biopic about non-violent human rights activist and Indian independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi stars Ben Kingsley in the title role. The film was an overwhelming critical success and won eight Academy Awards in 1983, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Besides being one of the most celebrated films about a human rights activist, Gandhi may also be one of the most exhaustive, with a running time of over three hours. Gandhi has maintained its status over the years and the film currently has an 87% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

2. Malcolm X (1992)

Directed by Spike Lee, Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington as the title character and Angela Bassett as Betty X. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X was a prominent human rights activist and civil rights leader who was assassinated during the turbulent 1960s. The film traces his life story from his troubled youth as a petty criminal, to his eventual conversion to Islam and his rise as a prominent civil rights leader.

Malcolm X was a critical and commercial success and earned two Academy Awards nominations in 1993, including a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington. The film currently has a 91% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.


1. Milk (2008)

Gus Van Sant directed this critically acclaimed biographical film about human rights activist and America’s first openly gay elected politician Harvey Milk. Milk stars Sean Penn in the title role and Josh Brolin as Dan White, the fellow politician who assassinated Milk. The film tells the story of Milk’s political career from his early unsuccessful campaigns in California, to his eventual election as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “From senior citizens to union workers, Harvey Milk changed the very nature of what it means to be a fighter for human rights and became, before his untimely death in 1978, a hero for all Americans,” says the official Milk website about the visionary civil rights leader.

Milk was hailed by the critics and the film went on to win two Academy Awards in 2009, including a Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Sean Penn. The film currently has an impressive 94% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

Source: Movies CheatSheet