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Martin Luther King Jr Was Born Today; Which Of These 5 Film Projects On His Life Will We See First?

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 15, 2013 1:26 PM
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Today in history, January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta, GA.

As far as we know, there are at least 5 film projects in the works based on either the life of MLK, or some significant period during his 39 years on this planet; most recently announced, and most likely to be made first, is the Paul Greengrass-directed MLK assassination pic, Memphis, which was once a sure-thing, but the studio backing it, Universal Pictures, later backed out of financing and distributing the film; word on the street was that pressure from the MLK estate to call off the project, because they were unhappy with the script, was one of the reasons.

The film, which was supposed to focus on the events leading up to King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, while he was trying to organize the city’s sanitation workers in spring of 1968, was to begin shooting in 2011, for an early 2012 release. Obviously, that didn't happening.

In November of last year, our last update on the project, it was announced that the film was alive again, with French distribution company Wild Bunch getting behind it, and super producer Scott Rudin producing, after almost a year in hiatus, and it just might be up next for Greengrass. 

Deadline said that they had read the script, and called it "Oscar caliber stuff."

But chances are, if the script they were going to go with before is the same that they'll go with this time around, it looks like it'll be one of those biopics that is made without the approval of those protecting the image of the subject.

The other MLK projects in the works include, of course, Lee Daniels’ Selma (currently in limbo, and very likely dead, due to financing issues, as well as the very same reasons Greengrass' project has stalled - the King estate being unhappy with the script); then there's Oprah’s HBO miniseries (which you'd think would be a go, although no ETA yet); there's also the Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks project that has the backing of King’s estate (likely will also push forward; after all, it's Spielberg and Dreamworks, and it has the backing of the estate. It may just be a matter of when), and Wesley Snipes’ planned exploration of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit MLK, and the fallout that followed, titled Code Name Zorro (he's still in prison, right? So, I wouldn't be looking for this one anytime soon).

In a related project, Malik Yoba is playing MLK opposite Angela Bassett, as Coretta Scott King in the Lifetime original movie projectBetty And Coretta. Although it's not a film that's centered on MLK specifically.

As noted, one of the reasons for the holdup in the production of those 2 rather high-profile MLK film projects - both which would (reportedly) emphasize MLK's vices, and not just revel in hagiography - was Andrew Young's objections - the civil rights activist, member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 60s Civil Rights Movement, a supporter and good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a key role in the events in BirminghamAlabama, was a strategist and negotiator that influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. And also, he was with MLK in MemphisTennessee, when he was assassinated in 1968.

Young reportedly objected to scripts which included scenes of marital infidelity during MLK's final days, among other "vices."

I haven't heard much about what Spielberg's or Oprah's MLK projects contain in terms of content; given that both seem to be near-sure-things (especially the Spielberg project which has the backing of the King estate); I can only assume that both of those projects are, shall we say, more wholesome, family-friendly tellings of MLK's life.

But, thus far, none of the projects mentioned above is in production, as far as I know, so, anything's possible; let's see which of these makes it first to the finish line.

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  • Fred | January 15, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    Based on what's written it looks like the Greengrass movie will be out the gate first which is very unfortunate. The fact that it doesn't have the King estate's blessing should be enough reason to look down on it. I find it very suspect that it's a movie totally made by whites and it seems very interested in putting out gossip in the guise of exploring MLK as a full human being. I don't have a problem with a 3 dimensional portrayal of historical figures. In fact in bio pics it's encouraged but there is a difference between a 3 dimensional portrayal and just throwing scandalous stuff that may or may not be based in truth simply because you want to generate controversy. Greengrass is a terrible director anyway that's been way overblown in terms of talent. All that fool does is shake cameras and in our dumbed down cinematic culture people have been laughably mistaking that as some kind of directorial brilliance. Personally, I would love to see the Snipes' project come out as it sounds like a very interesting angle. Of course, no white producer of any significance in Hollywood would want to touch that kind of movie with a ten foot pole. Snipes being in jail just further cements that project's doom.

  • Fred | January 16, 2013 2:17 AM

    TMACK, your response is coming from a simplistic interpretation. Nowhere did I say that I any scene of marital affairs should be left out of any bio pic. The comments I gave were far more layered than that. My point in bringing up the King estate's objection is because of what I said bio pics tend to fall apart. You should read again what I wrote.

    And the people that "whine way too much" about Greengrass' shaky-cam are correct. It is bottom of the barrel film making. Shaking cameras takes no talent. Sitting down and actually designing compositions to express a mood, emotion and atmosphere is far more difficult and takes actual talent.

  • tmack | January 15, 2013 5:12 PM

    It would not at all bother me if a film presenting King's life included a scene or references to King's personal life, including affairs. King's place in history is solid enough to withstand any hint of humanness. Ultimately, its inclusion is a matter of proportion and relevance to the film's themes, i.e. good v bad filmmaking.

    Regarding Greengrass...I have long admired his film Bloody Sunday about the British massacre of Irish protesters during a civil rights march. I also like his Jason Bourne films. People whine way too much about shaky-cam; he uses it appropriately.

    Lastly, the family is not always the best judge of film material. Families have their biases and interests and are usually too overprotective of a family members's image. The conflicts over whose project to back sound more political than anything else.

  • Fred | January 15, 2013 3:50 PM

    Did I say that King didn't affairs? NO. I said, "just throwing scandalous stuff that may or may not be based in truth". Movies have taken things that may be true but run with it. They could take that fact but make up scenarios that never actually happened. They could also take his affairs and put more importance on it than it deserves. Also, in the article Tambay wrote of the script, "Young reportedly objected to scripts which included scenes of marital infidelity during MLK's final days, among other 'vices.' " So other "vices" that may not even be important in the big picture but are inserted to have something controversial in the movie. This is a major pitfall of many bio pics that take a subject but instead of giving a layered portrait of someone great they put so much emphasis on their "vices" that the whole point is lost.

  • No | January 15, 2013 3:15 PM

    It is a well-established fact that King was having affairs with women other than his wife. This is what the King estate objects to, the warts and all. Ralph Abernathy said it in his book. The film King: From Montgomery to Memphis obliquely mentions it. David Garrows asserts it in one or two of his books on King, in which the FBI spied on King and recorded him and his dalliances. The FBI tried to emotionally blackmail King into killing himself. I think the tapes were even peddled to newsmen of yore who refused to touch the stuff. Fat chance of that in this puerile era. The files on King will be released, and I hope I live long enough to be around when they are.

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