Every third Monday in January, America remembers the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who remains a vital influence in the fight for the rights of African-Americans. In the 1950s & 1960s, he fought for those rights with acts of nonviolence and civil disobedience in the segregated South. Through time, his efforts – during and after his death in 1968 – would inspire millions. It would even lead to the dream fulfilled of an African-American in the role of U.S. President.
Considering all of this, it’s amazing to believe Dr. King isn’t a highly-coveted character on film. He is widely played in TV movies and even a recent Broadway production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett (The Mountaintop), but in the cinema, he’s a rarely-played figure. Is it because the influence of Dr. King was so powerful and widely felt, any attempt to play him just wouldn’t be satisfactory enough? Even so, there have been a few actors daring enough to take on the role of the influential preacher and activist who dared to dream for his family – and for his people.
Raymond St. Jacques, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)
The first major use of Dr. King as a film character was this 1977 biopic from writer-director Larry Cohen, with Oscar winner Broderick Crawford (All the King’s Men) in the title role. While the FBI chairman’s investigation of Dr. King is featured in this film, it is overshadowed by Hoover’s involvement with the Kennedys in the 1960s. While St. Jacques gets the unofficial nod of being the first to play Dr. King on film, he would do TV work for the rest of his career until his death in 1990 – save for giving an unbilled performance as Frederick Douglass in the Civil War epic Glory.
Robert Guillaume, Prince Jack (1985)
The TV legend (Soap, Benson, Sports Night) stepped into the historical shoes of Dr. King for this unique biopic about John and Robert Kennedy. The film’s strategy: mixing real documentary footage of the brothers with filmed re-enactments. While the two actors portraying the Kennedy brothers (Robert Hogan, James Kelly) were relative unknowns, the film backed them with a stellar ensemble featuring Guillaume, Dana Andrews and Jim Backus. Guillaume’s performance was highly regarded, while the rest of the film was largely considered unmemorable.
LeVar Burton, Ali (2001)
Michael Mann cast Will Smith in the title role about the great boxer, but Dr. King was such a crucial figure in the time period the film was set, he had to make an appearance. While the role was small, it did go to a highly-regarded actor in LeVar Burton. While he was better known as the host of Reading Rainbow and as Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Burton knew a thing or two about playing strong African-Americans determined to rise up against the challenges befalling them. He played the young Kunta Kinte/Toby in the landmark Alex Haley miniseries Roots.
Paul Winfield, King (1978)
While the big screen had a few notable markings of Dr. King being portrayed, it’s the TV movie that has engineered the most portrayals. Even with other great actors such as Jeffrey Wright (the HBO film Boycott) and Clifton Powell (Selma, Lord, Selma), it was Paul Winfield who may have pulled off the greatest Dr. King anywhere on any screen. He commanded his presence in this three-part miniseries, with Cicely Tyson as wife Coretta and Ossie Davis as Martin’s father. All three received Emmy nominations for their roles, and was a critical and ratings success.
On January 15, 1929, a future civil rights legend was born. His presence still lingers and amazes 83 years on. Surprisingly though, his character hasn’t been hugely used as a character for a motion picture. Maybe it’s hard to pull off the spiritual and emotional power needed to bring Dr. King’s spirit back to life – or it may be too daunting a task to pull it off right. Even so, there have been a few great instances of Dr. Martin Luther King’s spirit being re-enacted to remind Americans the great American he was – and still is.