Words by Keith Murphy
There’s a certain inherent conundrum that goes with portraying larger-than-life civil rights giant Martin Luther King Jr. Play him too much on the nose and you will be charged with delivering a cheap impersonation. Color outside the lines and you risk coming off as pretentious.
On this historic day marking the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of MLK, we present the 10 best portrayals of a great American treasure. Salute.
Nelsan Ellis, Lee Daniel's The Butler (2013)
In a standout scene in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the dynamic Ellis, who shockingly passed away in 2017, offers the underlining message of Black pride as MLK in a film inspired by the real life of White House worker Eugene Allen. It's interesting to see him interact with David Oyelowo, who would also play Dr. King in his own film years later.
Malik Yoba, Betty & Coretta (2013)
A confident Yoba makes the best out of his truncated King screen time in a surprisingly strong Lifetime showcase starring the incomparable Bassett (Coretta Scott King) and Oscar-nominated R&B great Mary J. Blige (Betty Shabazz) as the widows of the slain civil rights leaders.
Jeffrey Wright, Boycott (2001)
The truth is the gifted Tony and Emmy-lauded Wright should have a cabinet full of awards. All you have to do is watch his slow-burning, nuanced take of MLK in this HBO-produced look inside the historic Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Stunning stuff.
Clifton Powell, Selma, Lord, Selma (1999)
Here’s proof that the ubiquitous Clifton Powell is more than just everybody’s favorite, shady, scowling bad guy. Just as noteworthy is the visionary behind this pre-Selma re-telling of Bloody Sunday: pioneering Black independent filmmaker Charles Burnett.
Raymond St. Jacques, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)
The first dramatic big screen portrayal of the civil rights icon was viewed by many critics as a plot device in the Larry Cohen directed film. Still, the talented St. Jacques makes the best out of cookie-cutting dialogue in a minuscule role highlighting the infamous war between feared FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and then attorney general Robert F. Kennedy.
Paul Winfield, King (TV miniseries) (1978)
The late, criminally underrated Paul Winfield set a towering bar for all future MLK featured projects in the acclaimed NBC miniseries. King earned nine Emmy nominations, which is not surprising given the otherworldly talent attached to the three-night event project, which included Cicely Tyson and Ossie Davis.
Dexter Scott King, The Rosa Parks Story (2002)
In a bit of brazen stunt-casting, the second son of Martin Luther King appeared as his larger-than-life father for just a brief moment in this CBS biopic of the mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, starring Oscar nominated actress, Black Panther standout, and all around goddess Angela Bassett.
Kevin Michael Richardson (voice), The Boondocks (2006)
In the discussion for G.O.A.T. Boondocks episode, creator Aaron McGruder presents a dream scenario in which King wakes up from a 32-year coma only to find a post-911 world that ridicules his storied non-violent stance. Kevin Michael Richardson--a regular on the irreverent animated series, which ran on the Cartoon Network from 2005 to 2014--deftly (and hilariously) pulls off a disappointed MLK incensed by this new society’s extreme cultural nihilism as well as the troubling revelation that Soul Plane exists.
James Bernard, The Meeting (PBS)
This 1987 one-act play, an imagined meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and fiery freedom fighter Malcolm X, was adapted two years later for PBS’ American Playhouse. But with all apologies due to the other actors who have been tasked with playing a celebrated deity, James Bernard gives perhaps the most riveting (and complex) performance of MLK. Here he is presented as a hopeful, hilarious, angry, tactical, and down-to-earth human being.
David Oyelowo, Selma
The most high-profile portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. is boldly fueled by a near flawless Oyelowo, whose brilliant performance was memorably snubbed at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Photo Credits: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage, Jim Smeal/WireImage, Unique Nicole/Getty, Steve Grayson/WireImage, Frederick M. Brown/ Getty, Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic, J.Countess/Getty, John Lamparski/WireImage, Leah Puttkammer/WireImage