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Top ten civil rights movies

As Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave opens in cinemas, here's our choice of the greatest films about black civil rights

Brit director Steve McQueen's much talked-about historical epic 12 Years A Slave is out this week. It's based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who in 1841 was abducted, shipped to New Orleans and sold into slavery. Rave reviews for the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, and Lupita Nyong'o as the object of obsession of a cruel slave master (Michael Fassbender), have generated Oscar buzz. McQueen's prior films Hunger and Shame were both about bodies subjected to extremes - and with 12 Years he's no less confrontational in depicting the full brutality of a legacy America has been reluctant to confront on screen. To mark the release, here's our pick of films tackling racial inequality head-on.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Ryan Coogler’s powerful, acclaimed debut feature is based on the real-life shooting – publicly decried by many as police brutality - of young, unarmed African-American Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) by a rail transit officer in California in 2009. The film, set for UK release later in the year, follows him on his last day alive.

Nothing But A Man (1964)

Released in the UK for the first time last year, Michael Roemer's gritty, soul-weary and stunning indie was one of the first depictions of black life in the Deep South. It shows the first stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement through a railroad-worker's efforts to resist racial persecution rather than succumb to booze and despair.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Alan Parker’s classic mystery, based on real-life 1964 crimes, sees two FBI agents arrive in Mississippi to get to the bottom of the disappearance of some civil rights activists. They face obstruction by the local sheriff’s office - which is linked to hate group the Ku Klux Klan - and the community fear this has created.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington stars in this acclaimed epic from famed director Spike Lee about the life of African-American black liberation movement leader Malcolm X, who preached a more radical approach against inequality than the mainstream civil rights movement. "We don't see the American dream; we've experienced only the American nightmare!" he declares in voice-over at the start.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

This picaresque indie from Melvin Van Peebles kick-started the blaxploitation genre. In it the director plays an African-American who works in the brothel where he grew up and is wrongly accused of a murder by the corrupt cops, prompting him to take flight toward the Mexican border. The film's ending shocked viewers, who were used to seeing any black rebel character end up dead.

Pressure (1976)

Set in '70s London, indie director Horace Ove's gritty landmark feature follows Tony (Herbert Norville), a British-born school leaver from a family of Trinidadian immigrants, as obstructed by institutionalised racism from finding work he becomes politicised. The depiction of 'sus' (suspicion) laws echoes the controversial stop-and-search police actions of today.

The Colour Purple (1985)

Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Alice Walker, this emotional epic from Spielberg (his first move from summer blockbusters to weightier topics) portrays the lives of African-American women in the rural South of the '30s and the social struggles - poverty, racism, sexism - that they faced. Whoopi Goldberg stars as hardship-embattled Cecilie, with Oprah and Margaret Avery as her spirited BFFs.

Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)

An opening title declares this low-budget, savvy and witty Sundance hit "A Film Hollywood Dared Not Do". Directed by Leslie Harris, it focuses on Chantel (Ariyan Johnson), a young African-American living in Brooklyn (the title namechecks a New York subway line) whose career ambitions are challenged by her history teacher's demands she tone down her straight-talking attitude about racial inequality and by an unplanned pregnancy.

The Black Power Mixtape (2011)

This insightful documentary from director Goran Olsson mines a trove of 16mm archive footage from the late '60s and early '70s captured by Swedish journos who went to the US to shoot urban unrest. Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael are among the black rights activists who feature, as well as artists such as Erykah Badu and Melvin Van Peebles who were influenced by the struggle.