Martin Luther King Jr. in Hollywood: 12 Actors Who've Played the Activist

5:15 AM 1/21/2019

by Meena Jang

Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, David Oyelowo and Samuel L. Jackson are among the actors who have portrayed the civil rights leader.

Selma - Still 2- David Oyelowo - Photofest-H 2017
Paramount Pictures/Photofest

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who famously died April 4, 1968, and his fight for equality carries on in both history and in pop culture. 

From David Oyelowo portraying the activist in the Academy Award-winning biopic Selma to Samuel L. Jackson making his Broadway debut as the historical leader in The MountaintopThe Hollywood Reporter takes a look at the actors who have portrayed the civil rights leader onscreen.

  • Paul Winfield

    Paul Winfield was the first to star as the civil rights leader, in NBC’s 1978 television miniseries King. The three-part series garnered a total of eight Emmy nominations (including an outstanding lead actor nod for Winfield) and one win for music composition.

  • James Earl Jones

    The 1982 miniseries Freedom to Speak, which featured a wide range of historical figures including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, and Daniel Webster, saw James Earl Jones portray both Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.

  • Robert Guillaume

    Then best known for his role in the Golden Globe-nominated series Benson, Robert Guillaume portrayed the leader in the 1985 film Prince Jack, which chronicled the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

  • Clifton Powell

    Clifton Powell portrayed the activist in ABC’s TV movie Selma, Lord, Selma. Set in 1960s Alabama, the 1999 drama centered on a young girl’s bold decision to join the civil rights movement upon being stirred by one of King’s speeches.

  • Courtney B. Vance

    Courtney B. Vance, most recently seen in FX's American Crime Story: People v. O.J. Simpson, played King in the television miniseries Parting the Waters in 2000.

  • Jeffrey Wright

    In the 2001 TV movie Boycott, Jeffrey Wright and Carmen Ejogo portrayed Dr. King and wife Coretta Scott King (Ejogo played the role of King’s wife again in 2014’s Selma). The film raked in three nominations and one win at the NAACP Image Awards.

  • LeVar Burton

    Alongside film lead Will Smith, LeVar Burton starred as King in 2001's Ali. The film, set mainly during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, told the story of pro boxer Muhammad Ali.

  • Dexter Scott King

    Dexter Scott King, the second son of King and wife Coretta, starred as his own father in 2002’s The Rosa Parks Story, a TV movie based on the life of civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

  • Samuel L. Jackson

    In his Broadway debut, Samuel L. Jackson portrayed King in the 2011 stage production The Mountaintop. The play was set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and depicted the leader’s final moments before his assassination.

  • Malik Yoba

    Malik Yoba starred as the leader in 2013's Betty & Coretta. The TV moviewhich traced the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X's widows following their husbands' assassination, featured Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett as Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, respectively.

  • Nelsan Ellis

    True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis brought King to the screen in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The 2013 film followed White House butler Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) as he lived through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and other milestones in history. Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo co-starred.

  • David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo took on the leading role of director Ava DuVernay's 2014 King biopic Selma, which depicted King’s 1965 voting rights campaign and the famed march from Selma to Montgomery. The actor earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.