There have been many portrayals of the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his portrayal in the recent Netflix film Rustin is one of the most unique ones.

Aml Ameen said that if he could summarize stepping into King’s shoes for the role in Rustin — which follows the life of another civil rights legend, Bayard Rustin — and the role King played in making the March on Washington come to life, Ameen would say it is all about “owning your power.”

“It speaks to the journey that Dr. King goes on throughout the movie in Rustin,” Ameen told Blavity’s Shadow and Act. “He’s someone that is navigating who he’s going to be at that level and the fact that he’s become this huge star and iconic figure that can energize the March on Washington.”

He continued: “He’s such a figure that everybody knows, but his private life, who he was behind closed doors, is very much unknown. So to see him in his private world, outside of the political sphere, to see him in his friendships, to see him as a human being trying to navigate a brotherhood … is beautiful, and I think it’s well-crafted by George C. Wolfe.”

To connect with King on a personal level in an effort to bring out a different side of him through the film, Ameen said he focused on really trying to grasp one of his most iconic sentiments — not judging someone by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character.

“I got to understand what was on King’s mind at the time. His influences, the books, the stories of his life. That he was a star at home, but he’d gone to Boston — he wanted to have a particular life, and then everything was kind of dragged into this world because of this responsibility,” Ameen said.

“My access point to him was trying to understand this idea of the bumper sticker quote where he says, ‘Don’t judge someone by the color of his skin but by the content of the character.’ Well, what does that mean beyond just something we’ve all heard? And for me, it was getting into delaying judgment when you’re computing and conversing with people,” Ameen said. “Taking them in and fully taking in the experience of them. It gave me a sense of nirvana.”

What’s more, by tapping into the inner workings of King’s mind for the role, especially his thoughts about mortality toward the end of his life, Ameen began to look within.

“In certain scenes, I wanted to really push his reflections and his fear of dying,” Ameen said. “For me, the thing that shifted me seismically in having had this experience is actually something that’s not in the film. That has changed me dramatically in my life — focusing on the fact that there is a clock ticking for us all. There’s this mortality to life and what do you want to do? What kind of life do you want to have? How do you want to live?”

He added, “From a spiritual perspective, giving over to the fact that you don’t control everything — and that’s been something that’s quite challenging for my personality, but it’s something I’ve had to concede to this year. It’s all kind of wrapped up in the speech when King says, ‘I might not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.’” 

“Or when he first starts and he says, ‘I’d like to live a long life, longevity has its place. But I’m not worried with that. Now, I just want to do God’s will,” Ameen said. “And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. I might not get there with you. But I wanted to let you know that we as a people tonight will get to the promised land. So I’m not fearing any man. [I’ve] just seen the glory in the coming of the Lord.’ This is a man who’s saying, ‘I want to live a long life, I want to live honestly, [see] my kids get old, I want to be with my wife, if it’s not the will of life, [if it’s] not the word of God, that I’m going to accept it’ — that is profound. To really think about that, in our everyday life. So that’s what has affected me the most, to be honest.”

Looking ahead, Ameen said he hopes to portray King again soon, as he would love to continue to pour himself into the role.