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.