Internet Movie Database lists 50 times that Martin Luther King Jr. has been portrayed by actors, from 2014's "Selma" to "Epic Rap Battles of History." Of those portrayals, 34 have been produced since 2000, with this year's HBO film "All the Way" the most recent. Here are 14 actors who have notably played the civil rights movement leader.
Raymond St. Jacques
IMDB lists the 1977 film "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover" as the first portrayal of King in film or on television. Actor Raymond St. Jacques, who had been a regular on the series "Rawhide," played King (see a clip here). Later in his career, St. Jacques would play Frederick Douglass in "Glory" (uncredited) in 1989. St. Jacques died in 1990. Throughout the 1980s, Martin Luther King Jr. would be a secondary character in more biopics about John F. Kennedy ("Kennedy," 1983) and J. Edgar Hoover ("Hoover vs the Kennedys: The Second Civil War," 1987).
(Photo by Sebastian Artz/Getty Images)
In 1978, NBC aired the three-part miniseries biopic "King," starring Paul Winfield as MLK Jr. Winfield earned an Emmy nomination for the role, as did his costars Cicely Tyson as Coretta and Ossie Davis as Daddy King. (See a clip of Winfield delivering a speech here.) Real-life King family members played small roles, including Christine Farris King, Alveda King and the King children — Bernice, Martin III, Dexter and Yolanda (who played Rosa Parks). Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson also had a small role.
(Photo by Gabe Palacio/ImageDirect)
James Earl Jones
Jones played Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1982 miniseries called "Freedom to Speak." The all-star cast featured American historical figures across centuries, and some actors played more than one role. In Jones' case, that meant also playing Frederick Douglass. Jones would later provide the voice for Daddy King in a 1999 video about MLK Jr.'s life (more on that later), making him the only actor according to IMDB to play both the father and son.
(Photo by Joey Ivansco / AJC file)
The 1984 independent film "Prince Jack" was another Kennedy biopic that featured MLK Jr. in a supporting role. Guillaume was into his fifth season as TV's "Benson" when the film was made ("Benson" lasted for seven seasons). Guillaume, by the way, also took a turn playing Frederick Douglass in 1985's TV miniseries "North and South."
(Photo from American Playhouse)
"The Meeting" is a 1987 play that imagines a conversation between MLK Jr. and Malcom X in a Harlem hotel in 1965. In 1989, the PBS program "American Playhouse" broadcast a production of the play starring Jason Bernard as MLK Jr. and Dick Anthony Williams as Malcom X (watch it in full here — it's pretty gripping). Bernard was a character actor with a long list of credits, including recurring roles in "Cagney & Lacey" and "Herman's Head." He died in 1996.
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
"Our Friend, Martin" was a 1999 animated educational video with an all-star voice cast. In it, two teenagers travel through time to learn about Martin Luther King Jr. at different points in his life. Jaleel White — yes, the "Urkel" guy — voiced King as a teenager. Two others voicing King in the video — LeVar Burton (Martin at age 26) and Dexter King (Martin at age 34) — would go on to play MLK Jr. in other films. Other voices from "Our Friend, Martin" included Yolanda King (playing her aunt Christine), Oprah Winfrey (Coretta), James Earl Jones (Daddy King), Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Travolta, Susan Sarandon, Ashley Judd and Danny Glover. Now you're curious to see it, aren't you?
(Photo via Disney)
The 1999 Disney TV movie "Selma, Lord, Selma" has been getting a second look since the 2014 film "Selma" was released. The earlier movie, partly filmed in Atlanta, starred a young Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a girl inspired by a speech by King in the days before the Bloody Sunday march. Clifton Powell played King, and told the AJC in a 1999 article that he studied film of King being himself "away from the crowd, just sitting with the (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) or in the back room meetings." "Selma, Lord, Selma" is also notable for costarring Yolanda King as a school teacher (she has 18 IMDB credits overall).
(Photo by Bob Greene/HBO)
"Boycott," a 2001 HBO movie filmed in Atlanta, looked at an earlier moment in King's career — the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. Jeffrey Wright won praise for capturing King's oratorical style in the film's speeches. The movie, which won a Peabody Award, also starred Terrence Howard as Ralph David Abernathy and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta, a role she would reprise in "Selma."
(Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for AOL Inc.)
Having already lent his voice to "Our Friend, Martin," LeVar Burton played MLK Jr. in the flesh in the 2001 film "Ali." The brief scene, which you can see here, showed MLK Jr. meeting Malcom X in front of hungry cameramen.
(Helen Comer / AP file)
Dexter Scott King
The youngest son of Martin Luther King Jr. always looked like a movie-star version of his father. After moving to Malibu to pursue a film career, Dexter King finally got a chance to portray his famous dad in the 2002 CBS TV movie, "The Rosa Parks Story." It was a small role in a film that was really about Parks, played by Angela Bassett. Alas, the role didn't translate into a larger acting career for Dexter King. He moved back to Atlanta earlier this year.
(Photo by Jan Thijs / Lifetime)
The 2013 Lifetime movie "Betty & Coretta" focused on the friendship between Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) and Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige). Malik Yoba, perhaps best known for his roles in "New York Undercover" and "Empire," played MLK Jr., but it wasn't a big role. Much of the movie takes place after the assassinations of King and Malcom X. Bassett, by the way, had previously played Betty Shabazz twice (in "X" and "Panther").
(Photo via HBO)
Nelsan Ellis' portrayal of MLK Jr. in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (2013) includes a scene where King explains why black butlers are important to the civil rights struggle. The scene is especially significant because of who King is speaking to — Louis Gaines, the son of White House butler Cecil Gaines. Louis was played by David Oyelowo in that scene, which must have been a little weird for the actor considering his next big role. The irony goes further when you consider that Ellis played a waiter in "The Help" one year earlier.
(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima / Paramount Pictures)
David Oyelowo set the bar high for future King portrayals in the 2014 film "Selma," much of which was filmed in metro Atlanta. The film went to great pains to recreate the look and feel of the Selma events, and Oyelowo's take on King garnered accolades from civil rights figures such as Rep. John Lewis and former Atlanta mayor Andy Young. His performance earned him best actor nominations from the Golden Globes and Critic's Choice Awards. He was passed over, however, for an Academy Award nomination, and this oversight was partly responsible for the creation of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
(Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO)
HBO's film "All the Way," released earlier this year, is based on a stage play that concentrates on President Lyndon Johnson's (Bryan Cranston) push to pass the Civil Rights Act. Anthony Mackie, best known as the Falcon in the Marvel movies, plays King in a supporting role. Reviews have been positive although some have politely noted that Mackie, while very good, doesn't exactly lose himself in the role. Perhaps it's an indication that David Oyelowo will cast a long shadow over anyone playing King in the near future.
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