Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Martin Luther King Goes to the Movies

In anticipation of Martin Luther King Day on January 20, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about Dr. King.   Something about his life out of the public eye – his childhood, education, family.  We would be dog-sitting for the weekend (adding to our own two dogs), it was cold outside, and it would be a perfect weekend for a movie.  I assumed that there would be cable offerings like crazy so I would have plenty to choose from.  

Not so.  There aren’t any movies about Dr. King!  Okay, there are some documentaries, and there’s a three-part miniseries that aired in 1978, but it wasn’t well received at the time, and I couldn’t find any channel carrying it on what should have been a prime weekend for broadcast.

There are, however, at least three King projects in development, but none yet in production.    

Director Paul Greengrass (most recently of Captain Phillips fame) has been working on “Memphis,” in which actor Forest Whitaker would play Dr. King.  At one point there was talk of a 2012 release date to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the ““I Have a Dream” speech, but in 2011 Universal pulled its funding from the project claiming a scheduling conflict.  Other sources stated that the King estate was critical of certain elements of the intended script, and threatened public denouncement of the film.  The project is supposedly still in the works but, at last look, does not show up as a “future project” on Greengrass’s Wikipedia page.

“Selma” is another project in the works for some time, slated to be directed by Lee Daniels (The Butler), and with a cast that was to have David Oyelowo (Lincoln, Jack Reacher, The Butler) in the lead role, and Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Robert DeNiro, Cedric The Entertainer and Lenny Kravitz. This project has also had apparent criticism from the King estate, and Daniels recently dropped out, to be replaced by Ava DuVernay, an up and coming director who earned recognition at Sundance with Middle of Nowhere.  Last week, the project got a major shot of adrenalin when it was announced that Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt would produce the movie through Pitt’s production company Plan B Productions, the company that produced 12 Years a Slave.  Oyelowo is still slated to play King.

The third project in the pipeline is a proposed biography of King that DreamWorks has had in development since 2009 when it acquired “life rights” from the King estate.  For a couple of years, there was little or no noise about the project, but, somewhere along the line, Warner Bros. became a partner.  Last fall it was announced that Jamie Foxx would play MLK and Oliver Stone would direct.  Less than four months after this announcement, however, Oliver Stone dropped out of the project, claiming that he had been told that the King estate would not accept his script re-write.          

Three major projects, all sidetracked by the King family. All for apparently wanting to address issues that might paint Martin Luther King in less than a perfect light.  

If you had to bet which of these projects will reach the screen first, the DreamWorks project would have been a good place to put your money – at least up until 30 days ago.  No one wants to offend the King family, not just for public relations purposes, but because they are so darn litigious, even to the point of suing each other.  Because there is so much publicly available information about MLK, the “life rights” acquired from his estate are more likely an agreement for cooperation from the family as opposed to getting access to private information.  With the family’s express cooperation would be a tacit agreement not to sue over privacy, defamation or intellectual property issues.  The fact that King’s three children are signed on as executive producers of the film shouldn’t hurt either.  

But if Stone’s departure tells us anything, the participation of the King family could actually become a hindrance to the production – or at least to attracting an important director.  Anyone with some integrity is not going to want to be hindered by the King family’s obsessive control over the portrayal of their father.  This makes it interesting for the “Memphis”/Greengrass project which has none of the DreamWorks obligations to the King family, but still apparently lacks funding.  The game changer in all of this is Oprah Winfrey (and Brad Pitt).  Can she keep peace with the King estate, family and friends, while at the same time not pander to those who refuse to allow that Martin Luther King may have had human flaws?   I guess we can only wait and see.

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