All of King’s Men: Actors Who Have Played MLK

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David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. (IMDb)

David Oyelowo was recently nominated for a Golden Globes Award for his depiction of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, which opens nationwide Jan. 9. Directed by Ava DuVernay—who became the first black woman to earn a Globes nod for best director—the film has been buzzed about for years, and Oyelowo first secured the role in 2010. The British star joins a list of other talented actors who have played the activist in the last five decades. Take a look at other actors who have dared to dream big dreams like King.

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Paul Winfield: King, 1978  

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Winfield became the first actor to portray King on-screen in King: The Martin Luther King Story, a miniseries that was broadcast on NBC in 1978. For three nights, the six-hour miniseries captivated audiences while telling the late civil rights leader’s story. In late January, the miniseries will be remastered and re-released on DVD/Blu-ray.

James Earl Jones: Freedom to Speak, 1982

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Jones portrayed MLK in the TV miniseries Freedom to Speak. It featured several historical figures, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth and Andrew Carnegie.

Robert Guillaume: Prince Jack, 1985

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Prince Jack told the story of President John F. Kennedy’s presidency, and Guillaume was tapped to play the role of King. “When I was asked to play Dr. King in Prince Jack, I knew I could not refuse, but I also knew he was so familiar and iconic to people all over the world, I was not going to try to ‘be’ him, but do my best to ‘represent’ him and what he stood for,” Guillaume wrote at the Huffington Post.

Dexter Scott King: Our Friend, Martin (1999); The Rosa Parks Story, 2002

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What better way to pay respect to the King family than to ask his son to be featured in a film about his father? Dexter King, the second son of Martin and Coretta Scott King, played his dad twice: once in the animated film Our Friend, Martin, in which he voiced Martin at age 34; and again in The Rosa Parks Story.

Jaleel White: Our Friend, Martin, 1999

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White was the voice behind 15-year-old Martin in the animated children’s film Our Friend, Martin.

Clifton Powell: Selma, Lord, Selma, 1999

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Powell is best-known for his comedic roles in films like Next Friday and Friday After Next. But in 1999 he co-starred in Selma, Lord, Selma with Jurnee Smollett.

Courtney B. Vance: Parting the Waters, 2000

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There have been several TV miniseries about Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters featured Vance, currently starring in State of Affairs.

Jeffrey Wright: Boycott, 2001

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For those who hadn’t heard of Wright before 2001, this film definitely helped raise his profile. Since his role as King, Wright’s star has continued to rise in Hollywood.

LeVar Burton: Ali, 2001

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Blink and you may have missed Burton’s role as King in this biopic of Muhammad Ali. “You see, Dr. King was such a towering figure in my life; such a pillar of indomitable courage, strength and dignity, that I believed there was no way that I could even begin to approximate his character, even in pretending,” Burton wrote at the Huffington Post. “In my mind I was woefully unworthy, plain and simple.”

Michael Clarke Duncan: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2005  

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Duncan narrated this audiobook about King’s life by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier. It’s the perfect book for a child to be introduced to the iconic leader.

Nelsan Ellis: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 2013

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Ellis is best-known for playing Lafayette on HBO’s vampire drama True Blood. But in 2013 we saw a different side of Ellis as he brought MLK to life in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Malik Yoba: Betty & Coretta, 2013

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In this Lifetime TV movie about the lives of two other iconic civil rights leaders, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, Yoba stars as Martin Luther King Jr., opposite Angela Bassett as his wife. 

Kenan Thompson: Saturday Night Live, 2013

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Leave it to SNL to bring out the funny in King. In this skit, the ghost of MLK comes to visit President Barack Obama in the White House. Obama expects him to ask about civil rights and justice, but King is more concerned about a few other things.

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