While there hasn’t yet been a great film about Martin Luther King, Jr. – which is criminal at this point – it hasn’t stopped Hollywood from using the icon in some project almost every year since the mid-1970s. Even one of King’s actual children has taken a whack at it. More often than not, King ends up as a cameo character or being so poorly cast it’s hard to focus on the film as delivered. There are, however, a few notable exceptions, and on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it’s worth pointing the good ones out. My list is based on resemblance to King, voice, screen time and overall film impact. I don’t rank my lists often, but this one kind of asked for it.
4 – Clifton Powell
Selma, Lord Selma (1999)
One of the busiest actors in Hollywood (this guy had 17 gigs in 2012), Powell has the face for King, but like many of the actors he’s too tall and doesn’t have enough screen time to make the portrayal stick. He does a serviceable job on the voice, but considering how sinister Powell is in every other movie he’s in, you got to give him credit for trying to tone it down. Looking like King is half the battle, and while King was never as dark as Powell, the actor was probably an easy pick for the filmmakers at the time.
3 – Nelsan Ellis
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
His screen time is mad short, but of the long list of King cameos, his is the best. Of all of the Kings, he’s the one that most looks like the man, his voice was really solid and he is as close to the right height as Hollywood will allow. It’s enough to make you wonder what he would have done given the kind of screen time some of his peers have received. He could very well top this list given a full script and a better hair cut.
(Aside: Do we really have to add “Lee Daniels'” to the title every time we’re talking about this movie? Does anyone ever think I’m referring to a nearly 100-year-old silent film when I say “The Butler”? And if they do, should I not just beat their hipster pseudo-film student ass into the 21st century?)
2 – Paul Winfield
While there is no great definitive movie about King, this one is as close as we’ve come to date. At six hours it spends the most screen time attempting to capture King’s life and legacy, and despite its numerous historical inaccuracies, Winfield shines here. He’s too tall (like most King actors), but he’s got the carriage, the face and the range. His voice is off, but you let it slide because you get to see so much King. If you have to show someone a film on Martin Luther King, Jr., this is the standard (again, despite the many liberties it takes with history. If you can watch The Butler like it’s history, you can stand this).
1 – Jeffrey Wright
Wright has been one of best actors in Hollywood for about a dozen years now. He possesses King’s timbre just ordering a pizza, bears a passing resemblance to King, and he’s not over six feet tall. Wright had a lot of the tools already in place. This movie focuses almost entirely on pre-fame King, so there are a lot of things about King’s life you don’t get to see here, but what you do get is 112 minutes of Wright bringing the heat.