Casting King: Who Should Play MLK in Spielberg's Future Biopic?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cleavant Derricks
Cleavant Derricks
Ving Rhames
Ving Rhames
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Jeffrey Wright
Jeffrey Wright

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:


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.


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.


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.


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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Comments 11 comments

Your Other Sister :) 7 years ago

Wow... This is a great article. I think I'm with you... an unknown that can capture Dr. King's essence would be the ideal. For, voting sake I think I will go with Jeffrey Wright, his performance was great in Boycott.


Rebasgirl 7 years ago

Very good article. I have seen portrayals of Dr. King thru the year, while all have been good, I want to see G R E A T in this movie. I want to believe I am seeing Dr. King like I saw Malcolm X with Denzel's portrayal. Of course, Denzel could play Dr. King because Denzel can play anyone. However, like you I would like to see someone new get the opportunity, but they MUST do this great man justice. If I had a vote, right now I would vote:

Jeffrey Wright or Chiwetel Ejiofor

While I wholeheartedly support Derek Luke, Dule Hill and Nate Parker, in their movies, I do not think they are the actors for this particular part. I want to be blown away!

I also think the casting of Coretta Scott King is also very important. I think this will be a fun debate as well.

See you at the movies!

Tracy 7 years ago

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a GREAT actor and I'd stand behind him as Dr. King. I also like Jeffrey Wright. It would be a tough call, but I like Chiwetel. I can't wait until the movie is cast. Something is tell me that Jamie Foxx may be vying for the role though....

Your Original Sister 7 years ago

Wow, great article, brother. I like all your choices and I'm sure they would all do a great job. I have to agree with you that he shouldn't be played by one of the big-name people. Those folks are already very well established, and I, like you, want another Black man to get his time in the sun.

Also, what about Coretta? I'd like to see you write an article about who you think should play her. She's going to be just as important, and I would probably say no to Jada, Halle, and other famous Black women, since we already know them.

Tiff Dawg 7 years ago

I think this is a great article. Your summations of the actors is right on target. My vote is for Chiwetel. I think he is an awesome actor, and it would be good to see him propelled into the spotlight with a key role. I am also a huge fan of Jeffrey Wright. Please keep articles like this coming!

patspnn 7 years ago from NYC

I think Jamie fox would be great for role

Rianna 7 years ago

OBBA BABATUNDE' should play MLK!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

Relia Freeman 7 years ago

Stephon Ferguson, he's got it. Unknown, powerful King performer. Visit his site at

songbyrd100 profile image

songbyrd100 6 years ago from Montana

Definitely would like to see Jeffrey Wright-his performance in Cadillac Records BLEW MY MIND.

Tim 4 years ago

Relia, I totally agree with you there. Stephon would be perfect for the part of MLK. But as for the part of Coretta King, I'd have to go with Lela Rochon.

DarylnCochrane profile image

DarylnCochrane 4 years ago from New York, NY

Good hub. Well thought out choices. I'd definitely go with Wright, but for a good second, Chiwetel is my pick. Jeffrey Wright is highly underrated and such a great actor. He's good in everything!

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