Remembering MLK And The Actors Who Have Portrayed Him

January 12, 2022
This January, we once again celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and take the time to remember to reflect on his life and legacy fighting for freedom, civil rights and social justice. Here are some of the actors who have taken on the challenge of portraying the iconic civil rights leader in cinema.

David Oyelowo

First among the actors we will name is David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie Selma (2014). A distinguished British-American actor, he had the honor of portraying MLK in a movie that was exclusively about the civil rights icon.

Selma (2014) tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr’s endeavors to secure equal voting rights for Black Americans and recounts the three-month period in 1965 in which Dr. King led a massive march from Selma to Montgomery. What’s great about this film and this performance is that it went deep into the character of MLK, how seemingly insurmountable the challenges he faced were, and how he reacted to these challenges. In short, Oyelowo does a phenomenal job of making the character feel as close to the real person as one can get. Prior to this film, he was also in the movie The Butler (2013), where he played Louis Gaines. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it is – he’s the character, Louis, that had an interaction with Nelsan Ellis’ depiction of Martin Luther King. 

David Oyelowo is also well known for his role in the HBO film Nightingale (2014) as Peter Snowdin, his roles as Robert Katende in Queen of Katwe (2016), and for portraying Seretse Khama in A United Kingdom (2016).

Jeffrey Wright 

In Boycott, a 2001 film, Jeffrey Wright also has the honor of portraying Martin Luther King Jr. The film itself is about the story of Rosa Parks and the early beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

The film does well to touch upon Rosa Parks’ interactions with some of the movement’s key figures, which include Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Here, the role of MLK is much more central to the story, as it only focuses on one era. In turn, we get to see Jeffrey Wright deliver a powerful performance as the civil rights leader. 

Levar Burton

Levar Burton, who is both an actor and director, portrayed MLK in the movie Ali (2001). The film focused on the life of Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous boxers of all time. There was, however, more to the man than just his boxing. Muhammad Ali was an outspoken civil rights advocator who had two very close friends who shared similar views. These two individuals are shown in the film, Malcolm X and none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

While the movie focuses more on Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, this doesn’t take away from Burton’s performance. Levar Burton is also famous for his roles in ABC’s miniseries Roots as Kunta Kinte and as Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge in the sci-fi television series Star Trek: The Next Generation

Anthony Mackie

One of the more recent films to have been released, All The Way (2016), features MLK as one of the more central figures to the plot, akin to Boycott (2001) if not more so. The film follows Lyndon B. Johnson’s first term in office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, where it focuses on his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

In an interview with NPR, Anthony Mackie talks about his portrayal of the civil rights icon and how it felt channeling MLK. In keeping with the values MLK upheld, Mackie emphasized not only the importance of portraying the compassion intrinsic to the character but also just how “great and shrewd a politician” he was, as it was a dimension of the character he felt most people weren’t familiar with. He also did well to emphasize MLK’s role “as a leader of men” (NPR, 2016). 

Anthony Mackie is also famous for his role in the MCU as The Falcon and is now the new Captain America. To name a few others, he has also starred in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Brother to Brother (2004) for which he won the Independent Spirit Award for best actor, and Notorious (2009), where he portrayed Tupac Shakur.

Nelsan Ellis

The late Nelsan Ellis stepped into the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the film The Butler (2013). Ellis was an American actor and playwright, who was best known for his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds in True Blood, an HBO TV series. 

The Butler (2013) is a film that told the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as a butler in the White House through several presidential administrations. The character of Cecil is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real butler who served in the White House.

One of the time periods the movie visits is the era of the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), where we get to see Ellis’ portrayal of MLK. In it, he is teaching Gaines’ son, Louis, a lesson about the struggles of racial equality not long before he is assassinated in Memphis. It’s a truly harrowing scene, one in which Nelsan Ellis gives an exceptional performance.

With that, so ends our commemoration of the actors who have had the honor of portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in film. In portraying him, they keep his story alive in a way that reaches more people and further cement his thoughts and timeless ideas into our memory, and we thank all of these actors for their profound work (and it goes without saying, MLK himself). We hope that you, our readers, have a great and restful MLK Day when it comes around!