Martin Luther King Jr. in Film and Theatre

January 12, 2017

On January 16, we celebrate the birth of one of the most inspiring thinkers and activists in our American history: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His example inspires activists, musicians, artists, and actors to this day. He’s also inspired plenty of films and theatre. Here are some of the most prominent portrayals of Dr. King, in film history.

1. “King

In 1978, character actor Paul Winfield (“Sounder,” “The Terminator,” “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan”) portrayed Dr. King in this three-part NBC miniseries, with Cicely Tyson playing Coretta Scott King. Though’s review praises Winfield’s performance, the review also mentions that “the rest of the 6-hour drama compromises the truth with the hokiest of fabrications,” including a meeting with Malcolm X … a year after Malcolm X was assassinated. Nevertheless the series received 9 Emmy nominations and one award, for the series’s dramatic score. Below is a clip of Paul Winfield reciting King’s speech at the Selma to Montgomery march.

2. Samuel L Jackson in “The Mountaintop”

Though not a film, Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” is easily one of the most notable portrayals of Dr. King, featuring Jackson (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Avengers”) debuting alongside the play on Broadway. Before Jackson, one of the highest grossing actors of all time, played Dr. King, the play had a bit of a difficult history, failing to secure a venue at first, but finally debuting in London at the 65 seat 503theatre. The slow start didn’t stop the play from rave reviews, and finally Katori Hall won a Laurence Olivier award for best new play. Below are highlights from the play.

3. Boycott”

A slightly obscure selection, this HBO production, directed by Clark Johnson (actor/director “The Wire”), stars Jeffery Wright (“Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace”) as Dr. King during the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. The film was an adaptation of Stewart Burns’s “Daybreak of Freedom.” What “Boycott” may lack in popularity, it makes up in for in pedigree. On the one hand, there’s not even a well-developed Rotten Tomatoes page for the film. On the other hand, it won a Peabody in 2001 for “refusing to allow history [to] slip into the past.” Below is a clip from the film, described as “what [Coretta Scott King] learned from Bayard Rustin while she was a student at Antioch College.”

4. “Selma

Perhaps the definitive portrayal of Dr. King on film, “Selma” was also a movie of it’s time. In 2014, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, not even a year after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the crime of murdering Trayvon Martin, sparked a national conversation about police brutality against African Americans. “Selma” received attention across the board, particularly for Ava Duvernay’s (“13th,” “Middle of Nowhere”) direction and a powerful lead performance by David Oyelowo (“Lincoln,” “The Butler”). Critically acclaimed, “Selma” led to Ava Duvernay becoming the first African American woman nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best drama. The trailer is below.

How has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired you? Let us know in the comments below!