As one of the most important and influential figures in history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life has been immortalized on-screen multiple times. Sometimes it’s a story about his journey to becoming the leader we all know, while other times, he appears as the catalyst for change in someone else’s story. No matter what role Dr. King takes, he is always a larger than life on-screen presence. As we celebrate his birthday, we take a look back at the on-screen portrayals of the legend.
Paul Winfield - King
Though low ratings signal that America wasn’t ready for this 1978 miniseries, that had nothing to do with Paul Winfield’s stellar performance. He and leading lady Cicely Tyson were nominated for Primtime Emmys.
James Earl Jones - Freedom to Speak
Perhaps, the least surprising name on this list is James Earl Jones. Who else has the gravitas to play MLK and Frederick Douglass in the same miniseries?
Robert Guillaume - Prince Jack
Obviously, we all know how truly spectacular Robert Guillaume was. But when he appeared as the civil rights leader in the 1985 film about President Kennedy, it was a chance for the rest of the world to see that there was so much more to his talent than Benson.
Clifton Powell - Selma, Lord Selma
Back in the day, Disney Channel used to make these original movies that taught kids about tolerance, understanding and friendship. Selma, Lord Selma follows Sheyann, played by a young Jurnee Smollett, as she becomes inspired by Dr. King, joins the movement and ends up marching with protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
Courtney B Vance - Parting the Water
No matter what role he’s playing, Courtney B. Vance manages to bring an air of authority to his performance. The minute he shows up on-screen, he commands respect, a crucial part of playing Dr. King.
Jeffrey Wright - Boycott
Jeffrey Wright has the ability to find the humanity behind the larger than life characters he plays. It’s what makes him so fascinating to watch. In the movie chronicling the Montgomery Bus boycott, he shows viewers the strain the movement took on the man, not the legend.
LeVar Burton - Ali
When real-life figures are in movies and TV series, sometimes the audience just needs an emotional connection to buy into the performance. There are very few actors who have a stronger connection with the audience than LeVar Burton.
Dexter Scott King - The Rosa Parks Story
The Rosa Parks Story absolutely centers on Angela Bassett’s unforgettable portrayal of the civil rights icon. However, there’s a nice moment in the film where Dexter Scott beautifully honors his father with a spot on performance.
Nelsan Ellis - Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Nelsan Ellis’ appearance in The Butler isn’t long, but it’s impactful. It is his words that remind the audience how important Cecil, and other workers like him are, to our history.
David Oyelowo - Selma
There’s a common quality of hope that runs through all these performances, but where David Oyelowo stands out is with his brilliant combination of exhaustion and resolve. He lets us in on how hard this all is, while also making it clear he has no plans to give up.
Anthony Mackie - All the Way
Sometimes Dr. King’s non-violent beliefs are mistaken for weakness. Of course, this is not at all true and Anthony Mackie gets to showcase the badass fighter beneath the icon. His refusal to settle for crumbs is an element we need to see more of in future portrayals.