The arc of history is long. But does it bend toward a Martin Luther King Jr. movie?
For years, filmmakers have tried to get King dramatizations off the ground, with directors as prestigious as Oliver Stone and Jonathan Demme failing to gain traction. Whether because of lack of financing, the absence of a good script or simply the failure of the cinematic planets to align, arguably the most important American of the 20th century, not to mention the story of the movement he helped lead, has gone un-memorialized in the dominant narrative medium of our time.
That omission was on its way to being rectified with a vengeance earlier this year, when no fewer than five King-related projects were underway in Hollywood. With two dropping out and two merging into one, it seems that at least one major King motion picture and a cable miniseries are finally on the way to screens big and small.
In April, DreamWorks Studios and Warner Bros. announced they would join forces to produce an as-yet-unnamed King drama, which is being written by Kario Salem ("The Score"). Both studios had King projects in development, with DreamWorks having secured the cooperation of King estate chairman Dexter King in 2008.
After some initial squabbling with siblings Martin and Bernice King, in 2009 they joined their brother on the project, announcing that DreamWorks would have access to their father's papers, life rights and rights to his speeches. (DreamWorks executives expect to see Salem's most recent draft this fall.)
Meanwhile, last year, Lee Daniels, fresh off directing the Oscar-nominated "Precious," indicated that his next film would be "Selma," about pivotal events in that Alabama city in 1964, with David Oyelowo in the lead. And in February, Paul Greengrass announced that he would write and direct "Memphis," about King's last days and the search for his assassin.
But in April, Universal Pictures, which had agreed to produce and distribute "Memphis," abruptly confirmed it would not back the film, a reversal that stunned Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin, who thought they'd be filming in June. Although the studio attributed the change of heart to timing issues, Deadline Hollywood reporter Mike Fleming revealed that Andrew Young - the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador and close King confidant - had read the "Memphis" script and raised objections with Universal executives, which may have informed their decision to scuttle the film.
Young reportedly objected most strongly to Greengrass' depiction of a character based on Georgia Davis Powers, who, according to her memoir, was with King at the Lorraine Motel the night before he was shot. Reached at his office in Atlanta, Young said he'd forgotten why he'd objected to Greengrass' script, but that, like "Selma," which he also read, as well as other projects, he felt "Memphis" distorted and sensationalized King's legacy.
"For instance, I read some script where they had 1/8King3/8 and Ralph 1/8Abernathy3/8 in Selma, drinking beer and smoking pot," Young said. "Well, that could not have happened. Every room we ever stayed in was bugged, and if there was ever any incidence of Martin Luther King and drugs, they would have locked him up so quick, you'd never hear from him again. Yet these arrogant screenwriters want to try to humanize him in a way that they . . . project their weakness on to him."
Those familiar with Greengrass' script, as well as with his taut truth-based dramas "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," insist that "Memphis" is anything but prurient or salacious. "I thought it was really compelling and very important," said Fleming of the "Memphis" screenplay. "It's a little bit warts-and-all, but I think it's a very honorable depiction of Dr. King's struggle. It's not a preachy biopic."
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