For his part, Greengrass expressed confidence that "Memphis" would make it to the screen. "We'll set about making the film in due course," he said in an e-mail. "The good thing is this: The way the world is turning right now makes King's legacy and ideas increasingly more relevant. Look at what's happened in the Middle East right now. What do we see? Millions of disenfranchised mainly young people pressing for radical nonviolent change. . . . This great, unstoppable ideal that King developed in the U.S. is alive and moving across the world today in profound ways."
(In May, "Selma" executive producer Brad Pitt said that, although the film was "in limbo at the moment," he was confident that "Lee would get it done.")
Perhaps the longest-running attempt to bring King's work to the screen may finally be on the verge of realization: An adaptation of Taylor Branch's trilogy "Parting the Waters," ''Pillar of Fire" and "At Canaan's Edge" is in development at HBO under the production auspices of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films. The seven-hour miniseries, which is being adapted by "Pacific" screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, has the potential to capture the complexities, characters and scope of an era that stand in danger of being reduced to stock figures in a standard feature film. After two decades of stops and starts bringing his Pulitzer Prize-winning history to the screen, Branch said, "I'm more curious than anybody on Earth to see what Robert Schenkkan has come up with."
He continued: "We still have this vast, empty canvas from that period, and the first film that breaks through needs to have some balance. It needs to invite other films to come through." He cites "Mississippi Burning" as an example of a film that had a chilling effect on dramas that sought to tackle the subtleties of the civil rights era, and not only because it cast the FBI in a heroic light, which many observers considered a scandalous distortion of history.
"The movie squandered an opportunity," Branch said, because "it killed the 1/8civil rights workers3/8 in the first scene. So you had no sense of why they did what they'd done and why it was so transformative. You didn't feel the movement." That densely layered sweep of history may be best served with the long-form storytelling that HBO has perfected with such miniseries as "The Pacific" and "John Adams."
Surprisingly, one of the reasons why audiences have gone so long without a King movie may be the King family itself: Understandably seeking to have only the most flattering portrait presented for the permanent record, family members haven't hesitated to contact filmmakers of what they deem to be negative portrayals, suggesting that without rights to King's life and speeches, the projects might be on thin legal ice. Although few filmmakers would admit it, surely some have backed off after these threats, if only to avoid a public relations disaster.
Still, DreamWorks partner and co-chairman Stacey Snider said the studio wanted freedom to quote liberally from King's writings and speeches, without fear of infringing on copyrights. "As a movie executive, usually we want to make things shorter," she said. "In this case, we want the audience to be in the swell of his oratory. . . . If we are giving it our very best effort to be comprehensive and righteous to his memory, then we have to be comprehensive and righteous to his words."
There's little doubt that DreamWorks, whose co-founder and partner Steven Spielberg directed such epics as "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," is capable of making what Andrew Young said he was looking for in a King movie: "the kind of thing that Sir Richard Attenborough did on 'Gandhi.' " That was a classy, stirring evocation of Gandhi's work, surely, but some critics thought it presented an overly idealized version of a more complicated man.
With the King family executive-producing the DreamWorks-Warner Bros. project, the question arises as to which nuances, if any, of King's life and character might be left on the cutting-room floor. It seems more likely than ever that the arc of history will include a King movie. The question is whether it will bend toward depicting the man or the myth.
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