Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is one of the few great American figures that has never had a major motion picture centered around his life. To be fair, Hollywood has never TRULY wanted a major picture about any civil rights/black power icon. We only got Malcolm X due to the persistence of Spike Lee and the funding of various African-American celebrities. Perhaps it is because they would be forced to tell Dr. Kings ENTIRE story. Perhaps because they would have to talk about the turmoil in the final year of his life when he decried the Vietnam War and damned the United States by labeling it the most violent in all of the world. Perhaps because telling his entire story would make it impossible for mainstream media to continue to whitewash his legacy.
While no major film has been produced of Dr. Kings entire life, there has been multiple noteworthy portrayals of Dr. King in television and film. There was a popular miniseries titled “King” that was produced in the late 70’s starring legendary actor Paul Winfield. There was also the amazing HBO feature “Boycott” starring Jeffrey Wright which centered around the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Finally, there was last year’s blockbuster feature film “Selma” which starred David Oyelowo as Dr. King. While Selma was a big budget feature film, it is still not a film about Dr. King’s life.
Each of these actors did phenomenal jobs portraying one of the seminal figures of our time. There is nothing harder than portraying a figure whose image is seared into the hearts and minds of people around the world. Dr. King was so many things. He was an activist, community organizer, scholar, author and phenomenal orator. It is this final identity as orator that makes portraying him even that much more daunting a task. Dr. King was a prolific and exhilarating orator and speech writer. Understanding that they are two separate things. These days figures have hired hands that write the speeches with them giving voice to the texts an ad-libing when necessary. King did all of these on his own flawlessly. His mixed style southern down home preaching with scholarly lecture material in a way that had never been seen before and quite honestly hasn’t been seen since his death. You may hear hundreds of debate coaches break down the anatomy of Dr. King’s speeches but if they don’t know enough to know that the ending portion of the I Have a Dream speech wasn’t nothing but a black preacher “hoop” then they don’t know a thing about what the Anatomy of a Dr. King speech was. Dr. King also had a very distinct demeanor, diction and style about him that any actor portraying him would have to work hard to maintain.
Each actor was amazing in their turn as Dr. King, however, my favorite would have to be Jeffrey Wright. I NEVER expected such a great portrayal of a Baptist minister from Wright. I know that’s a shallow reason but hey I’m a church kid and that’s always the first thing we criticize about a minister. Can He Preach?? And that boy could preach! He got a few Amens out of me while watching! But really, Jeffrey did an amazing job of mixing the iconic flawlessness of King’s preaching style with his off stage demeanor as a father and husband. Yes, each film portrayed King as a family man and friend. You really can’t have a film with showing his beautiful relationship with Coretta Scott King. Jeffrey’s was most believable to me in that manner. When you see pictures of Dr King relaxing in his study or laughing and joking with his friends you see a different side of him. Jeffrey’s humanist portrayal of Dr King was the best so he gets my vote as the best King. Who gets yours?
King MiniSeries (1978)-