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Allegations Of Infidelity In Paul Greengrass' 'Memphis' Script Troubled Martin Luther King Estate

by Kevin Jagernauth
April 5, 2011 5:52 AM
10 Comments
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Lee Daniels' 'Selma' Also Ran Afoul Of MLK Family



We wished it was some kind of cruel April Fool's Day joke, but last Friday it was revealed that Universal was bailing on "Memphis," the Martin Luther King Jr. pic that was written and set to be directed by Paul Greengrass. The project was a big one. It was being prepped to start shooting in June with a release date already targeted for MLK weekend in February 2012. Universal pulled funding and claimed tight scheduling as an issue, however Deadline revealed that the estate of the late civil rights leader was "highly critical" of the film and threatened to openly and publicly condemn the project if it ever went in front of cameras. And now, more details have come to the fore.

Supporter and friend of Martin Luther King and his family Andrew Young spoke with Deadline and confirmed that he definitely made his feelings known to Universal about the script, in particular the portions which addressed MLK's rumored infidelity including one scene that had Young himself procuring a hotel room for one of his trysts.

"I thought it was fiction," Young said about the script he read. "There is testimony in congressional hearings that a lot of that information was manufactured by the FBI and wasn't true. The FBI testified to that. I was saying simply, why make up a story when the true story is so great? My only concern here is honoring the message of Martin Luther King's life, and how you can change the world without killing anybody."

Written by Greengrass, the historical drama centers on the final days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the springtime of 1968, when he was trying to help the city’s sanitation workers find common ground. This was a tumultuous time for King: he was facing heat from the President over his opposition to the Vietnam War while fighting marginalization due to his insistence on focusing his efforts on the poor working class. Memphis was also the place he would give his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech just a day before he would be assassinated. But "Memphis" isn't the only film to face an objection by Young, as Lee Daniels' long-developing "Selma" also contained references to MLK's extra-marital affairs and in particular, left out one key figure Young felt should be represented.

"They didn't even identify the woman who started that march, Amelia Boynton, who was beaten on the bridge and left for dead on Bloody Sunday," Young said, who already has an actress in mind for the part. "You want to talk about a role for Oprah, there it is. They said, 'We have our script,' and I said, 'No, you don't.' They call it poetic license, but I told them it doesn't make sense to take poetic license when the real story is more powerful."

When pressed about whether or not audiences would buy a film that scrubbed away some of the uglier truths about MLK out of the film, Young responded: "It's not wrong if the warts are there. But we had the most powerful and understanding wives in history, Coretta, my wife Jean, and Ralph Abernathy's wife Juanita. These women were more dedicated and enthusiastic in pushing us into these struggles than anybody, and the inference Coretta might have been upset about Martin being gone so much or them having marital troubles, it's just not true. Maybe I'm piqued because nobody read my book, and I tried to be honest, and I was there. We were struggling with history that we didn't even understand, but somehow by the grace of God it came out right."

Young has even offered to give his input on "Memphis" but hasn't been met with much of a reception saying, "I said I would pay my own way to LA to sit with the writers, tell what really went on, and give them names, but nobody took me up on it."

It's certainly a very tricky business balancing the respect for the subject at hand versus not hiding the less-than-honorable moments in the MLK's past. We would assume that Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin -- who are hoping to find another backer to get the film back on track -- had the best intentions in mind, however, the legacy of MLK is a powerful one and it's understandable that the estate would want to be protective. However, it does the leader a great disservice to paint only a hagiographic portrait of him -- letting his actions speak for themselves will override whatever personality flaws he may have had and even today, it's still what is front and center of his memory.

No word yet on if or when Rudin and Greengrass will get the film moving, but without the support of the MLK family and estate, it faces an uphill battle that few would want to face.

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More: Films, Film Studios, Lee Daniels, Memphis, Universal

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10 Comments

  • Kevin Klawitter | April 29, 2011 8:57 AMReply

    @Chrisette

    I bet you haven't even seen any of Spike Lee's movies, have you?

  • Ryan | April 6, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    Rodie, I know what you're saying and I hope the movie gets made without the estate's involvement, too. But Kevin's right: a studio like Universal needs to be concerned about how their company is perceived. If you finance a film that's got Al Sharton, Jesse Jackson and everyone related to MLK calling you a liar, it's not going to do good things for GE (or Comcast at this point?) stock.

    I think you've got to get independent financing and do this on the cheap with some financiers who have courage.

  • Akim | April 5, 2011 12:11 PMReply

    How is that common knowledge? This is the first time I'm hearing of MLK possibly havin an affair?

  • sticksandstones | January 16, 2012 3:27 PM

    Apparently it's common knowledge to everybody but you. Pull your head out of the sand and maybe you'll learn a bit more.

  • rodie | April 5, 2011 9:22 AMReply

    @ Kevin.

    Of course I read the piece. But define "major sway."

    I just think it would be easy enough to buy the rights to a MLK biography and adapt that to the screen, whether it includes speculation of infidelity or not. Why do you need the estate's involvement at all?

  • Chrisette | April 5, 2011 8:06 AMReply

    What a bunch of horseshit from Andrew Young. I don't want to see a Hallmark-ified MLK dicksuck with Oprah involved. How about the best docudrama storytellers you can possibly get?

    Cue Spike Lee making the "ultimate" MLK film (blessed by Andrew Young) that's so biased and pulls so many punches it only appeals to black men of his age - instead of EVERYBODY.

  • Ryan | April 5, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    Great piece! I really hope this gets made somewhere else.

  • RichFromTampa | April 5, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Uh-huh....an JFK was a real altar boy, eh?

  • Kevin Jagernauth | April 5, 2011 6:31 AMReply

    Cause the estate didn't want it and has major sway -- enough to convince the studio to kill the project. Did you not read the piece? :)

  • rodie | April 5, 2011 6:28 AMReply

    I thought it was common knowledge that MLK was not faithful to his wife. Why would that not be part of a biopic about him?

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