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.