The human rights activist and minister Malcolm X is an iconic figure in Black culture. His dedication to equality, civil rights, and community empowerment made him one of our greatest leaders, and the contributions that led to his assassination was a testament to the love that he had for his people.
Throughout the years Malcolm has been portrayed in television, stage and film on several occasions, most notably by Denzel Washington in 1992’s Malcolm X. He was also played by Mario Van Peebles alongside Will Smith in Ali, and as recently as 2020 in Regina King’s One Night in Miami…, in which the civil rights leader was played by Kingsley Ben-Adir with a masterful performance.
The celebration of his birthday, take a look at the times Malcolm X was portrayed in television, film and stage.
James Earl Jones – ‘The Greatest’ (1977)
1977’s The Greatest was the first time we would see Malcolm X portrayed on screen. The Civil Rights martyr was played by the legendary James Earl Jones with a supporting role in the film chronicling Muhammad Ali’s life from 1960 to 1974. Malcolm was an important figure in Ali’s life as a young adult.
Richard Anthony Williams – ‘King’ (1978) and ‘The Meeting’ (1989)
The actor known for playing “Pretty Tony” in the classic blaxploitation film The Mack, Richard Anthony Williams, had the opportunity to portray Malcolm X on more than one occasion. He played the activist in the 1978 miniseries King, as well as in Jeff Stetson’s stage play The Meeting, which was a fictional account about an encounter between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and X in a hotel in New York during 1965.
Credit: American Palyhouse, via PBS
Al Freeman Jr. – ‘Roots’ (1979)
Al Freeman Jr. – the actor, director, and teacher – played Malcolm in the TV series Roots, a film about Alex Haley’s lineage. Haley wrote Malcolm’s autobiography, and they interacted frequently in the time preceding his untimely assassination.
Morgan Freeman – ‘Death of a Prophet’ (1981)
The Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman had played Malcolm in 1981’s Death of a Prophet, a television series that highlighted the martyr’s final days. It also showed how polarizing the man had been perceived in the public eye.
Ben Holt – ‘X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X’ (1986)
In 1986, the story of Malcolm X was taken to opera with X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Written by Christopher Davis, the opera “premiered’ at the New York City Opera in September of that year with Ben Holt as the title character.
Denzel Washington – ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)
Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is perhaps the most widely known. For his performance as the slain Civil Rights leader, Malcolm earned several accolades, including an Oscar nomination for “Best Actor” at the 65th annual Academy Awards.
Gary Dourdan – ‘King of the World’ (2000)
In ABC’s King of the World, Gary Dourdan had a supporting role as Malcolm, alongside Terrence Howard as Muhammad Ali. The TV film chronicled the early stages of Ali’s boxing career.
Photo by ABC Photo Archives
Joe Morton – ‘Ali: An American Hero’ (2000)
The FOX network aired Ali: An American Hero in August of 2000. Joe Morton played Malcolm in the TV movie focused on the life and career of Muhammad Ali.
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Mario Van Peebles – ‘Ali’ (2001)
Famed actor and director Mario Van Peebles played Malcolm X in the critically acclaimed Ali, starring Will Smith. The role highlighted the friendship between Malcolm and Ali, and how it was important to the boxer’s conversion to Islam.
Lindsay Owen Pierre – ‘Betty & Coretta’ (2013)
In the 2013 television movie Betty & Coretta, Lindsay Owen Pierre had the opportunity to portray the iconic orator and husband of Betty Shabazz. The Lifetime film starred Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett as the title characters.
Nigél Thatch – ‘Selma’ (2014) and ‘Godfather of Harlem’ (2019)
Similar to Williams, Nigél Thatch also played Malcolm on two occasions. In the film Selma, Thatch can be seen alongside David Oyelowo, and he also portrayed him in the Epix series Godfather of Harlem.
Kingsley Ben-Adir – ‘One Night in Miami…’ (2020)
In the fictionalized account of the meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in Miami after Ali’s win on Sonny Liston, Ben-Adir had a powerful performance. One Night in Miami… was directed by Regina King.