I was looking forward to the first epic movie on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. His voice would always pique my ears and any pictorial of his figure lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel or of his body in the casket would automatically send me reeling. So, announcements of the upcoming television docudrama called King transfixed me. But, as often happens when something is hyped up and the anticipation is almost unbearahle, finally, when I began watching the show, it became instantly anticlimactic and I was immediately disappointed.
Sure, any representation of King that is not King himself was going to be a letdown for me at the time. Nevertheless, I would be able to cope with such frustration if the presentation was qualitatively rich. However, in this case, I was quickly unimpressed and wanted it to end despite the ineluctably horrific ending.
Why did I have a negative reflex action to the film? After all, the actor playing the subject was the celebrated Paul Winfield. For him, the miniseries was probably the role of a lifetime: it aired just shy of ten years after the assassination. To play the Prince of Peace and arguably the most eloquent expositor of the so-called American Dream this nation had ever experienced was clearly quite an honor! And the prospect of three nights recounting King’s life was nothing less than heaven on earth for such a fanatic as I was then.
I don’t know anything about the auditioning process, or even if there was one. It seemed that Winfield was the obvious choice. In a sense, he had earned the right to play the greatest leader of the twentieth century. Besides, he would turn thirty-nine years of age in three months: the same age of King when he was assassinated. Some might even say that Winfield looked a little like King at a glance or a distance, which would add some credibility to his depiction of the civil rights leader.
What the casting people failed to ascertain is a matter of size. For you see, Dr. King was below average height for males at 5’ 7”; Winfield was around 6’ 1” tall. This difference between the two men was anathema to me. Part and parcel of the story of King—his disposition, his psyche, his charisma—had to do with his diminutive size. For example, when angered by a threatening white mob, King, who was walking away, made an about face to challenge what they were sneering and to shout at them that he was right there for the taking. In my opinion, the depiction of this episode in the film fell flat, for Winfield towered above most of the characters playing his lieutenants as well as over the racist protestors!
This pet peeve of mine is scarcely obsessive, but it still rears its ugly head, so to speak. For example, sometime during the twenty-first century, I became a reader of Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. Reacher is a solidly built man who’s measured at 6’ 5” in height. Again, when I heard rumors about the possibility of a feature film centered on this fictional character, I awaited more information with baited breath. Needless to say, I was floored to discover that the imposing figure of Child’s popular tough guy was going to be played by Tom Cruise! Cruise is no taller than King. I just could not get into the movie(s) with Cruise as Reacher, for it just would not click for me! There is good news, though, in that someone who matches Reacher’s dimensions will play the next rendition of Child’s character.
Recently, I watched a movie tribute to the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This nonviolent crusader for racial justice in South Africa and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid fell happens to be shorter than even Cruise and King! The winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize stands at 5’3” tall. Just imagine how overwhelmed I was when Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, was privileged with playing the international cleric! I felt that someone in the movie-making business was messing with my head!
Obviously, one of the reasons why Tutu is beloved is because this short man challenged a structurally racist society head-on with clear and eloquent voice. His physical stature was complimented by his powerful advocacy for the end of racial oppression. Whitaker, at 6’ 2” tall, was more suited in The Last King of Scotland to play Idi Amin (who was 6’ 4”) than the pint-sized crusader in The Forgiven!
I’m sure there are countless examples of bad casting that include many other dimensions besides height. Herein, I am not casting (no pun intended) aspersions against the acting chops of Winfield, Cruise, or Whitaker. Rather, I am calling for more discernment of the historical record, including the height of the subject matter (no pun intended, again), when hiring actors.