Casting King: Who Should Play MLK in Spielberg's Future Biopic?
Not long after news broke that Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg had secured the rights to produce a film based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bloggers and magazine writers alike immediately drew up lists of their ideal candidates. While some of the choices were inspired, others were a little too ambitious (Derek Luke, Dule Hill and Nate Parker, among others, have been mentioned as suitable choices).
I understand why a few of the names were mentioned. Some feel that, while they may not look the part, certain actors could capture the essence of the civil rights leader. Having just recently watched Oliver Stone's Nixon, which had Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, I can honestly say that a lengthy bipoic that runs on essence alone isn't going to cut it. Those involved with the production need to make sure that the actor who takes on the role should be as close to King physically and vocally as possible.
And that won't be easy. Very few actors resemble the reverend, and no one has his voice. However, I've compiled a list of five people I feel could pull the role off, give or take a few of their faults.
And the list reads like so:
#5. CLEAVANT DERRICKS
I'd be lying if I said I had heard of this actor before viewing The Root's list of possible King choices. In black and white, he seems to bear a mighty close resemblance to the man he would be portraying. But swap out that black and white photo for one in color, and the biggest difference is evident: Derricks is much darker than King. Not that this should keep him out of the running altogether, but it shouldn't put him in prime position. Not yet anyway.
#4. VING RHAMES
I haven't seen much of Ving lately, specifically since 1996's Mission: Impossible, which he was great in. He couldn't exactly double as King's twin brother, but a little bit of hair on his head and his usually thick mustache would help a great deal with the illusion. While his voice isn't that much like King's, it does carry a great deal of authority when he speaks, and that's a crucial part of creating the character.
#3. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR
Does he look a lot like King? No, not really, even with a mustache in place. But then again, Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't heavily favor Truman Capote, and neither did Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, yet you believed they were their respective figures. Ejifor is a relative unknown, which is a shame, considering how good of an actor he is. He's held his own against Denzel, twice, in back-to-back years (2006's Inside Man and 2007's American Gangster), and the British-born actor has even demonstrated his ability to handle a convincing, strong American accent in a film that, oddly enough, dealt with Dr. King's death (Talk to Me). It would be a breakout role for him if he got the part, and it's doubtful anyone would have a hard time remembering his name if he nailed the performance.
#2. JEFFREY WRIGHT
As of right now, he appears to be the frontrunner for online fans, and there's a reason for that. He's a fantastic, consistently believable performer, who's managed to hold court with big-name stars (though his name is not as well-known), and I would go so far as to say that he even stole the show from the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson in the HBO miniseries Angels in America. Not to mention, Wright has already portrayed King once in the made-for-television movie Boycott, and he never missed a beat. He's the closest anyone's come to capturing King's voice, and just like Ejiofor, turning in a terrific performance in a Spielberg-produced motion picture would likely put him on the A-list and keep him there. However, like the others, the resemblance isn't completely there, and in contrast to Derricks, Wright is a shade lighter than King. But that aside, he appears to be an excellent choice. He's done it once, what's stopping him from doing it again?
#1. An unknown
As great as I'm sure some of these men would be, none of them is 100% perfect for the role. And that is why I would hope that the filmmakers don't just drop a few names in a hat and pull one out, slap a mustache on the guy, and have them practice a few speeches in front of a mirror for a month. The role is too important for any casting to be glossed over. The man who will ultimately play the part should leave no doubt in anyone's mind that he is right for the role.
Obviously, the big problem with casting an unknown is the risk of drawing poor box office numbers, but a non-star doesn't always keep people away. An unknown didn't keep Notorious from taking in an impressive weekend haul. Personally, I would prefer an unknown, which, aside from their other benefits, is why I rank Wright and Ejiofor so high. For those who have already mentioned more established stars as possibilities, I say no to Jamie Foxx, no to Denzel Washington, no to Morgan Freeman, no to Terrence Howard, no to Will Smith. Let's introduce the world to the other talented African-American men who are just as gifted and, in this case, much more capable.
An unknown who breaks through with a role like this under the production of Steven Spielberg? Now that would be a dream, for them and for us.
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