Gabourey Sidibe, Mike Colter, Michael K. Williams on bringing Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to life
The trio, among the celebs to read King's speeches on a new audiobook, speak to EW about their experiences
This week, Audible published a groundbreaking new project to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination: The Radical King, a selection of 23 of King’s essays and speeches. The audiobook marks the first time the MLK Estate has ever allowed a dramatic interpretation of King’s words — even Ava DuVernay’s Selma had to improvise his speeches — and features words of King’s that were never recorded for posterity.
Curated and introduced by Cornel West and performed by a collection of acclaimed actors, King comes newly alive in this production — a new introduction to the man as few have been able to know him, as both more pragmatic and more radical than is commonly thought. His words also have a special resonance today, as his commentary on unity and division, racism and healing, feel unnervingly prescient in these divided times.
EW caught up with a trio of the actors who participated in the project and read original King speeches: Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, Emmy nominee Michael K. Williams, and Luke Cage himself, Mike Colter. Each revealed they weren’t particularly familiar with the selections they ended up reading, and expressed genuine amazement at the opportunity to read King’s words. All agree that the experience changed them, whether in ways big or small. Read our conversation below, and check out The Radical King (also featuring Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover, and more) here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you get involved in this project?
GABOUREY SIDIBE: They just asked me if I wanted to do it. It was a very easy “yes” because I don’t think that there’s another book quite like this, where there are different people reading the words — the essays — of Martin Luther King. I’m not sure why it hadn’t been done before.
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: I remember feeling honored to be a part of anything with his name on it, so I jumped at the opportunity — didn’t take much convincing for me.
How familiar were you with the speeches that you ended up reading?
MIKE COLTER: They did give us options. They gave me several different passages to look at. I went with the ones that I gravitated towards more, but all of them were treasures. Some of the speeches were edited before, and this was an uncut version. There was a lot of stuff that I had not heard — some speeches that no one had ever heard because they weren’t allowed to be read in public. This was something that was huge to be one of the first people who got the chance to read this material.
SIDIBE: I was just thinking about the first time I learned about Martin Luther King. I was in kindergarten and it was Black History Month when we went to the auditorium to hear some speeches by him and learn about him. At the age of 5 years old, I just accepted this was a great man. I certainly had benefited from all of the work that he’d done, and in a lot of ways, everyone has. But it’s almost like he’s omnipotent. He’s great, and we know he’s great, but we don’t really need to dive any deeper than just that. It wasn’t until I actually read the chapter that I was given that I actually really read his words — that weren’t just quotes from, like, the “I Have a Dream” speech,” which we’ve all heard at some point. To read something that was different than that, while still showing his value and his greatness and his mind and his genius and really his heart, it made me want to read more about him. I read some of the other chapters from the book, and I actually learned a lot. I’m grateful for that. I can feel a little ashamed to say I hadn’t wondered or been interested in reading more than quotes for Black History Month. And that’s completely wrong.
What about the speeches spoke to you?
COLTER: What really hit me was how practical he was. I think speeches are, first and foremost, meant to inspire and inform. But I really found that a lot of these were also applicable to life. When you hear his speeches, you feel you can implement them into your way of thinking … and how the world could be a better place if you do implement them. This was very practical knowledge. When I heard them, I was like, “These are more than speeches. These are blueprints for life.” They were rich and informative. When I read them, I actually was learning something as I read.
WILLIAMS: The main thing I connected with this is Dr. King and his words. If there was ever a time when he’s more relevant than when he actually said them, it’s now. It felt like we had him here in some little small way, his words still resonating like a beacon of light here now, for us in this time. It was in the room. It was beautiful.
SIDIBE: In the chapter I read, he talks a lot about “agape,” which is “love for love’s sake.” It’s the love that God has for us. Even though I’d heard of this term, I hadn’t really thought that deeply into what it means to just love without giving anything in return. It’s made me think, “You need to get some of that! You need to figure out how to love people without expecting love or anything back.” It’s just free love. … That sort of love, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced it, and never really thought it was possible. What I’ve been doing since reading this is try to assess whether I love things and people because of what they do for me, or if I just love them for love’s sake.
It sounds like you gained something from the experience.
SIDIBE: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah.
Did you find the prospect of doing this daunting at all?
SIDIBE: Oh my God, yes. … When you think of Martin Luther King, don’t you also think about dinosaurs roaming in the background? Doesn’t he seem so far away? It seems further away from us in time than he actually was. I don’t know what I was expecting, but his writings were incredible. And lots of $15 words. It was daunting because I’d written a book and I was doing the audiobook at the same time that I was doing Martin Luther King’s audiobook. To go from reading my silly words about writing NSYNC fan fiction or being a sex phone operator — the dumb things in my own life — to reading these incredibly crafted and well-thought-out speeches … and have them be so beautiful and eloquent was quite a contrast. Like, “My book’s cute but unimportant.” I mean, the words of Martin Luther King have changed the world — not just America, but the world, and had a direct effect on myself and my life as a black woman. It’s a lot less silly.
COLTER: It didn’t really occur to me until I sat in the booth and I started reading through it. I started to feel affected by some of the material and really think about the impact that having this stuff be read — for people to hear it for the first time. I was thinking to myself, “This is a big privilege.” Sometimes they don’t occur to you until you’re actually doing them. You hear it, you go, “This is great, can’t wait, love to be a part of it,” and then when you start doing it, you go, “Wow, this is a big deal and I want to make sure I do a good job.” It impacted me more so during the actual reading and taping of it all, because again, I’m reading these words, and some of it was just really mind-blowing. It was 40-some-odd years ago, and you just look at them and how much they could serve us in this current day and age.
WILLIAMS: I knew that he was Dr. Martin Luther King, but man was he also uber smart. The vocabulary! I was like, “This dude was really a doctor. He was really smart.” It was a very technical speech, used a lot of words — a few words I had never seen or heard before.
How did you approach the reading?
COLTER: For me, there was no emulation of trying to sound like Dr. King at all. There was no attempt to impersonate him. It was just to get the language, the words, out, so that the people can hear his intentions. Words are for interpretation a lot of times, and you can color words in any way you want to, but people are going to get what they want from the message. Sometimes people embellish with speeches, or with the way they present the language. I wanted to try to give people a way of feeling about it, of just hearing the message. And the message is in the words: There’s a story there, and there’s a specific experience that everyone’s going to feel individually. I didn’t want to try to become bigger than the speeches in any way, shape, or form. My approach was: Let the words affect you, let the words resonate with you, but get the words out there so it’s not bogged down by your own emotional interpretation. I hope that comes across.
WILLIAMS: I just flowed with it. I didn’t try to do his voice or anything like that, but the one where he spoke to the kids at Philadelphia, the high school, I found myself — particularly in that part where he recited this poem or this song — something came over me in the booth and I started to say it like if I was in slave times. It came from somewhere else. If one of my ancestors who I knew were a slave, if they were alive and knew this song, they would say it like this, or sing this song like this. I went with that.
You’ve touched on it a bit, but: How do you think a project like this can resonate today?
WILLIAMS: If it’s anyone’s words, Dr. Martin Luther King’s words can remind us that we are nation of colors and all different races and that we are all equal. The only way that this works is when we’re together. If anyone’s words can echo that at a time when we need it right now, it’s Dr. Martin Luther King’s.
COLTER: When you look at where we are today as a society, and you think about what King’s vision was for society, I think sometimes the message gets muddled. We forget what the whole purpose of the marches were — the nonviolent approach, the speeches, his way of thinking. He tried to emulate Gandhi, in the way he approached his movement. People forget the reason he decided to do this. … The whole purpose was to make everybody look at themselves and understand that this was all one world, this was all one vision, and it was for all of us to be here together and function in harmony. … This is a reminder of what the movement was about from the beginning.
SIDIBE: His words and his message are really timeless. It’s really simple: Love your fellow man. That’s all it is. Love without hate, and love without benefit. It resonated then, it resonates today because these are not ideals that are too far away from us. They might seem like it’s pretty far away from us underneath the Trump presidency and the new era of hate that has been re-ushered into our everyday lives. Just reading Martin’s words in the bit that I got to read, it reminded me that there was a yesterday and that there will be a tomorrow. Today is nothing to fear.