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Photo: Ernst Haas/Getty.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most influential figures in American history. Heralded as the prophetic leader of the civil rights movement, Dr. King has been iconicized through multiple lenses. He was a longtime proponent of nonviolent activism, but still managed to significantly disrupt the racist fabric of American life during his lifetime. Dr. King is central to dozens of monumental social justice events — many of which have been recreated for TV and films — including the Montgomery bus boycotts, the March on Washington, and the fight for voting rights in Selma, AL.
Such a prominent historical figure is not without criticism and contradictory opinions about the legitimacy of his legacy. Some people see Dr. King as too passive. They insist that his agreeability is the only reason he earned the posthumous honor of being one of three people, and the only African American, to have a national U.S. holiday honoring them. Others see him as revolutionary champion for justice and equality, deserving of all his praise. There are others who prefer to uplift the unseen civil rights players lost in Dr. King’s shadow, like Bayard Rustin. All of this contention has presented itself in the on-screen representations of Dr. King throughout the years.
So answering the question, ‘Has anyone in Hollywood ever gotten it right?’ is hard when we’re talking about the man who has assumed legendary status since his assassination. Here are some of the most memorable representations of Dr. King in film and television.
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The Witness: From The Balcony Of Room 306 (2008)
Tackling the subject of Dr. King’s death, as opposed to his life, Samuel "Billy" Kyles provides a gripping portrayal of the assassination that ended Dr. King’s life. One of the strong points of this short documentary is how Dr. King’s push for economic reform made him more of a political threat. At the time of his death, he was fighting for sanitation workers to receive a 10-cent raise.
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Selma, Lord, Selma (1999)
Jurnee Smollett stole the show as a little girl befriended by Dr. King during his visit to Selma to mobilize people around voting rights. The activist played the role of a mentor, encouraging her to get involved with the movement for equality.
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Boondocks, “Return of the King” (2006)
In a differently mythicized version of Dr. King, the creators of Boondocks reimagined him awakening from the 32-year-coma he suffered as a result of a gunshot wound. He’s a disgruntled leader displeased with the current state of Black America. This satirical portrayal of Dr. King made him out to be more of “pull up your pants” Bill Cosby figure.
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This three-part miniseries aired over three consecutive days and was nominated for nine Emmy awards. It's acknowledged for being the first production to humanize Dr. King.
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Our Friend, Martin (1999)
If you went to a school that was big on Black history, there is a good chance that you had to watch Our Friend, Martin. This educational animation will forever go down in my memory as the quintessential Martin Luther King Manifesto. It intended to educate kids while encouraging them to have strong civic morals.