Whatever happened to the planned Martin Luther King Jr biopics?

Exactly a year ago today, I was excited that the long-overdue Martin Luther King Jr’s biopic was supposedly getting made. But now, on the eve of the MLK holiday a year later, there is still NO definite plan on that particular project, or any other movie based on this inspiring American hero. We’ve got ALL kinds of biopic movies of various leaders since: J Edgar (the famed FBI director), The Iron Lady (British PM Margaret Thatcher), The Lady (Burmese political & human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi), but still no MLK biopic on the big screen or even TV mini-series comes to life.

In that post, I reported that British director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy & Ultimatum, Bloody Sunday, United 93) was going to direct Memphis, a biopic which will focus on the period of King’s life just prior to his murder on April 4th, 1968 in the Tennessee city. Here’s a more detailed plot of what Greengrass had in mind:

it looks at King’s life while trying to organize the city’s sanitation workers in the spring of 1968, just before his murder on April 4 of that year. If so, that’d make for a much more human portrayal of King than some might expect. By the spring of 1968, King’s personal and professional lives were in disarray: His marriage was faltering; he was chain-smoking, boozing, and packing on the pounds. King’s outspokenness on the Vietnam War cost him his relationship with President Johnson, and his new-found interest in labor organization and the urban poor put him on the fringes of the rising Black Power movement.

Well, only a few months later Deadline reported that Universal pulled the plug on the project, citing ‘scheduling’ issues, but the article writer Mike Flemming suggested that the real cause is likely this “…the MLK estate was highly critical of the project, and exerted pressure on the studio to call it off…The family, I’ve heard, made it known that it might go public with its displeasure over Greengrass’s script, which could have hurt the film’s theatrical prospects.”

Apparently that’s not the only MLK biopic the King Estate has objections with. Precious‘ director Lee Daniels was apparently planning a biopic on Dr. King titled Selma, referring to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. This Deadline article cited that friend and confidante of the late Dr. King and his family, Andrew Young, raised objections to purported facts in the script Selma, which mentioned about King’s alleged extra-marial affairs. “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… 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.” Young was quoted as saying.

Now, as of last Thursday, English actor David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Help, Red Tails) who was going to play Dr. King in Selma said the project isn’t dead yet. He’s quoted in Indiewire as saying, “… we’re going to make [‘Selma’] one day, let’s get this collaborative energy going, let’s start creating a collaborative relationship. I know it will happen in its good time. That’s not a role you want to rush.”

I’m sure some people would also have objections to his casting as he’s not American. But to me, I’m more concerned with getting the right talent for the job, someone who not only look the part but could portray the role believably, so I think Oyelowo has both.

As for the objections about the negative portrayal of Dr. King, I certainly understand his estate would want to protect his image and his powerful legacy. But I agree with the Indiewire writer in that “… it does the leader a great disservice to paint only a hagiographic portrait of him…” Whether the infidelity factor was accurate or not, I don’t think it would take away or even lessen his legacy to mankind. After all, Dr. King was a hero, not a saint, he was subjected to human weaknesses like the rest of us. Well, it seems as though, much like Dr. King’s dream itself, the fruition of his own biopic also faces an uphill battle.


What do you think folks? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on these MLK projects.