The Impact of ‘Our Friend Martin’ 20 Years Later

If you were in elementary school during the late 90s and early 00s like me, you probably have seen the ground-breaking animated film Our Friend Martin a dozen times. January 12 marked 20 years since the film was released. It continues to resonate not only with me but also with many others of all cultures as well.

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The feature-length film follows two sixth-grade boys, Miles and Randy, who are transported back to the time of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Miles and Randy learn about Dr. King’s life and his contribution to humankind by experiencing the moment themselves and watching history in the making. While some of my peers in elementary school were probably happy to watch the film because we didn’t have to do any work, Our Friend Martin had a different and long-lasting impact on my life.

Growing up, my teachers always made my classmates and I create a project or paint a picture of Dr. King in honor of his national holiday in January. We’d have lessons about his activism and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement or discussion about his legacy and resilience. But for a long time, I didn’t truly understand just how transformative Dr. King was. I didn’t understand why my classmates and I were learning about him and why he was important enough to receive a national holiday.

Image Credit: Jimbo X​

The disconnect and my lack of understanding stemmed from attending predominantly white elementary schools. When I was younger, I didn’t think discrimination and racism existed. Even after having “the talk” that all young Black boys and girls have and being blamed by my White peers for things I didn’t do, I still thought the idea of someone treating me unfairly because of the color of my skin was an absurd idea. Because of this, I didn’t get why Dr. King and many others fought for civil rights for African-Americans. That is until I watched Our Friend Martin.

The first time I was in fifth grade. I was sitting in my uncomfortable brown desk at the front of the classroom when my teacher rolled in the TV and put the film on. A lot of my peers began laying their heads down and taking the time to nap. Myself, on the other hand, wanted to pay attention this time. I wanted to understand Dr. King’s motives and fully grasp the imprint he left on America.

Image Credit: Jimbo X

From the moment the music filled in my ears and Miles and Randy time traveled to meet Dr. King when he was younger, I was captivated in the story. The film breaks down the key pivotal moments in Dr. King’s life that influenced his decision to become an activist in an educational and fun way that I was finally able to understand. For example, when Miles and Randy are sitting with Dr. King on the train early in the film, it shows clips of segregation in the South and how Black and White people weren’t allowed to share the same bathroom, water fountains, and were barley allowed to breathe the same air. As I continued to watch the film and the archived footage from protests, marches, as well as seeing African-Americans getting bitten and chased by dogs and water hosed, I become overwhelmed with emotion. It finally clicked. Dr. King’s want for civil rights made sense to me for the first time after so many discussions and in-class activities about him.

Image Credit: Jimbo X

What makes Our Friend Martin so important 20 years later is that it approaches the Civil Rights Movement and racism in such a profound way that allows young kids to grasp and comprehend just how tumultuous the Civil Rights Movement was for African-Americans. The film promotes diversity and inclusion as well as encourages children to see their peers as individuals, not for the color of their skin.

For someone who blocked out any idea of discrimination and racism, I needed Our Friend Martin. It “woke” me up and helped me appreciate Dr. King so much more. He was more than just a man from Morehouse and father, he was a pioneer, an advocate, a brother to all, and most importantly a voice for all people, not just African-Americans.

We shouldn’t just celebrate his legacy once a year in January but throughout the year. We should honor Dr. King by promoting civil rights and implementing the things he believed in and fought for. It’s what he would want and it’s what Our Friend Martin encourages us to do.

Image Credit: Famous Biographies