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6 Actors Who Played Martin Luther King Jr. On Screen

Find out where you can still watch these breakout roles inspired by the great civil rights leader


spinner image Dr. Martin Luther King, the American Black leader gestures as he carries on an animated conversation during a one-day visit to London
PA Images/Getty Images

Ever since his 1968 assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has inspired some of our greatest actors to portray him — from Courtney B. Vance in TV's Parting the Waters to Samuel L. Jackson in the 2011 play The Mountaintop. In real life, Jackson was an usher at King's funeral, and The Mountaintop, which closed in January 2012, was Jackson's Broadway debut. Here are six other fine actors who played King in films and shows you can watch right now.

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spinner image David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr (Credit: c Paramount Pictures/Entertainment Pictures)
Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

David Oyelowo

Selma (2014)

Months after arriving in America, Oyelowo (pronounced “oh-yellow-oh"), a Brit descended from Nigerian nobility, got this script about King's 1965 Selma March, which led to the Voting Rights Act.

"I had a visceral, spiritual knowing that I would play this role,” he said. “God told me I was going to play Martin Luther King in the film Selma."

After seven years’ struggle, he did. God was wise. No actor has ever captured more sides of King: the joking papa at home; the towering orator; the canny politician; the straying husband scolded by his wife, a scene that never happened in real life but should have; the leader who fought down fear; an every man for all Americans.

"We go to the movies to see ourselves,” Oyelowo has said. “And if we can see ourselves in Dr. King, I think that is really potent and powerful."

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox On Demand, Vudu, Xfinity Stream. Also on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, DVD from eBay

spinner image Jeffrey Wright as MLK in Boycott
Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Jeffrey Wright

Boycott (2001)

In Boycott, about the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks, Wright conveys King's combination of intellectual reflection, spiritual depth and political savvy.

A highly cerebral actor who won the Golden Globe for Angels in America, Wright doesn't sound like King, who was age 26 for much of the time during the 381-day boycott. But he thinks like him and nails his crucial message: “We must not meet violence with retaliatory violence. We must meet their hate with our love.''

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, HBO Now, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, Xfinity Stream. Also on DVD from Amazon, Best Buy, eBay

spinner image Actor LeVar Burton gestures while delivering a speech in June 1999.
Actor LeVar Burton gestures while delivering a speech in June 1999.
Ben Margot, AP

LeVar Burton

Ali (2001)

Burton, (Star Trek: The Next Generation's Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge, Roots’ Kunta Kinte) is the only actor to have played King who, like him, deeply studied Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in a seminary and can match King's flawless diction. If his brief turn as King in Ali gets your interest, get his audiobook of King's autobiography.

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Here's Burton's favorite King quote: “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true."

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox On Demand, Vudu, Xfinity Stream. Also on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, Best Buy, eBay

spinner image Actors Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, wearing period costumes, smile while leaning against a car in a promotional portrait for the TV miniseries 'King'.
NBC Television/Getty Images

Paul Winfield

King: The Martin Luther King Jr. Story (1978)

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, had casting approval for this TV miniseries, and she hired Oscar nominee Winfield to play him as well as Cicely Tyson to play herself.

Winfield with his huge, empathic eyes and warm personality got an Emmy nomination for capturing King not just as a towering, rather remote public figure, but as a guy you feel you know. He's no match for the real man as an orator, though.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play. Also on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, DVD from Best Buy, eBay

spinner image  Nelsan Ellis at arrivals for Lee Daniels' The Butler
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Nelsan Ellis

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Ellis, the most charismatic actor on TV's True Blood, doesn't have a lot of scenes in this story of a black butler (Forest Whitaker) who worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986 and served eight presidents. But one speech wonderfully evokes King's ability to inspire the downtrodden.

Ellis's King tells the hero: “Young brother, the black domestic defies racial stereotypes by being hardworking and trustworthy. He slowly tears down racial hatred with his example of a strong work ethic and dignified character. Now, while we perceive the butler or the maid to be subservient, in many ways they are subversive without even knowing it."

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, FandangoNow, iTunes, Redbox On Demand, Vudu, Xfinity Stream. Also on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, Best Buy, eBay

spinner image Dexter Scott King Book Signing His New Book "Growing Up King" at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles, California
Maury Phillips Archive

Dexter Scott King

The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

The actor who most resembles King physically is his son Dexter, named after the Montgomery church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the elder King had his first pastorate. Left virtually penniless when his father died, Dexter King became a millionaire producer in Hollywood, whose animated children's film about his dad, Our Friend Martin, got an Emmy nomination.

At 7, he told his mom, “You know, Mommy. I don't see how my daddy can do so much and talk to so many people, and not even get tired at all."

Where to watch: Xfinity Stream. Also on DVD from Amazon, eBay

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