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.

31 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the planned Martin Luther King Jr biopics?

  1. It’s a tricky one I guess, but it does appear that the King Estate has heavy interest on the preserving the legacy of their father – as well they should.

    That said they must realize that a deified portrait of Martin Luther King will probably not be what people want to see in the theater. Not that they should sensationalize the more purported ‘colorful’ episodes in his life, but there should be an expectation that if they are essential to the narrative that they would be included.

    End of day these proposed projects are feature film which will use a certain level of poetic license to create dramatic tension, etc. Heck just look at we currently have on offer in the form of “The Iron Lady” and “W.E.”

    1. Yeah I’d rather see a ‘human’ portrayal of Dr. King than him as a deity. So he’s not perfect, who is? Only Jesus Christ was the only perfect man who ever lived, but even that didn’t stop some filmmakers in painting a false picture of HIM and that picture did get made unfortunately.

  2. I’m getting kind of burned out with al the biopics, but if there is one person right now who deserves a biopic MLK would be it. Perhaps the family could try to find a director they like as to not have too many disagreements?

    And i agree that even if he did have fidelity issue he still did a lot of good for america. And unlike certain “leaders” today he didn’t go around trying to run peoples private lives(Who usually turn out to be hypocrites).

    1. I understand your feeling Julian, but like you said, I do think Dr. King has an inspiring tale to tell. He was a fearless leader, it’s rare to see in the world today.

  3. Informative post Ruth. I also thought those two MLK biopics were in development but it seems like they are encountering a lot of issues. Personally, if anyone deserves a biopic, it might as well be Martin Luther King, one of the great American figure of the 20th century.

  4. Interesting read Ruth. I remember your post about it. I didn’t know the family minds that much. I think they are still looking for the right script. They don’t him to be presented in a wrong way

    1. Well by the ‘right’ script I think they’d rather not have his less-than-honorable parts being shown, but the proper biopic should show a ‘human’ version of the hero, warts and all. I don’t think that would taint his legacy.

    1. Glad to be of service, matey. I was a bit dismayed that even a year after I posted about the MLK project, there is still no progress on his biopic.

  5. Great post Ruth, love you line about MLK being human ‘After all, Dr. King was a hero, not a saint, he was subjected to human weaknesses like the rest of us’. I think it is important, while not encouraging scandal or specualtion, to embrace the full human dimension of a character as influential as MLK. I can understand his estate being reluctant to have his private life dragged into the open but what biopic doesn’t do that? I think it’s difficult to get people to empahasise with the person behind the legacy if we don’t show them as they were, warts and all.

    1. Well-said Ronan. If anything you’d be able to empathize and relate to Dr. King more as a human being. At the same time I also don’t want to see a sensationalized version that put too much attention on his blunder though, so I think striking that balance is the trickiest part.

    2. Ronan has said pretty much exactly what i was going to say, only more clearly. as long as a biopic doesn’t become a soap opera, i think there’s a lot of value in a film version of King’s life and accomplishments, even if it’s only the last year or so of his life. I’d rather see a shorter span of time portrayed more completely than his entire life story in 2 (probably 3) hours.

      1. That’s true, biopics could easily fall into that if the filmmaker isn’t careful. Yeah, a shorter span time should be the way to go and I think these two biopics were gonna do just that.

  6. Excellent and timely post, Ruth. It really is unfortunate that relatively little material has been done for MLK over the decades — I remember well the ’78 TV biopic with Paul Winfield as King. As Ronan said: “After all, Dr. King was a hero, not a saint, he was subjected to human weaknesses like the rest of us.” So true. His accomplishments in the Civil Rights movement and history mean that much more because he was a human being. Protecting his name and his legacy by the estate to the point that little comes out ultimately distances the public from this great man and his work. Thanks.

    1. Ahah, I said that on the post 😀 I’m glad you agree Michael, I do hope his family and friends would understand that and they can work something out with the filmmakers. Dr. King’s story ought to be told and it’s inspiring to every generation.

  7. I’m not big into biopics, last year’s Senna was an exception. They usually have some towering performances but the narrative is always too choppy and episodic for my liking. I just don’t think 2 hours is enough time to do anyone’s life story justice. Maybe when it only covers a brief period or event in their lives.

    1. I like biopics if the subject matter interest me and Dr. King’s legacy is certainly an important one. I think the filmmakers were going to focus on one part of his life, it’s not a biopic from his childhood all the way to his death… I think the ‘Selma’ one was going to focus around the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. You’re right, I think a full biopic should be treated in a mini-series format.

  8. http://www.martinlutherking.org/


    Universal withdraws from Martin Luther King biopic

    Objections from King family members said to be behind studio’s about-face over British director Paul Greengrass’s film Memphis

    Ian J Griffiths

    guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 April 2011 14.37 BST
    Article history

    Family way … British director Paul Greengrass, whose biopic Universal was set to back – possibly until objections by the Kings. Photograph: Linda Nylind

    Universal Pictures has pulled out of financing and distributing British director Paul Greengrass’s film about Martin Luther King, reports say.

    Greengrass’s script for the film, titled Memphis, focuses on King’s last days before he was assassinated on 4 April, 1968. Universal took on the project last month and filming was scheduled to start in June with an eye to a release for Martin Luther King weekend in 2012.

    The studio was said to be citing concerns about scheduling and a tight timescale to explain its abandonment of Memphis, but Deadline speculates that objections from King’s family may have played a part.

    King is thought to have been experiencing some personal problems in the months before his death and one of his friends, Andrew Young, attacked the script’s approach to this in the Independent. Young told the paper: “There was congressional testimony saying that the FBI manufactured certain things, like the fact that Martin and Coretta [his wife] were thinking about divorce. To say they were not getting along is absolutely ridiculous. I feel this is too great a story to deal in trivia.”

    He added: “I want someone to do with Martin Luther King what Sir Richard Attenborough did with Gandhi.”

    ~ Personally I think it is more the FBI who have special interest in stopping any biopic from being made if you ask me as the above states and it wouldn’t be the first time either.

  9. Ted S.

    It would be great if we finally see a biopic of Dr. King on the big screen someday. Back in high school we watched the 78 TV movie version and I thought it was pretty good.

    Maybe the reason why his estate aren’t too thrill about the new film project is because the script may be too over dramatized. I mean Hollywood tends to turn a story about real life person into more of a Hollywood story. Look at The Social Network, 90% of that film is BS but it got great reviews because it was well made. I wonder if the his family just doesn’t want the filmmakers to show some of his not to pleasant past?

    1. Yeah I think Greengrass’ script might be too sensational for their families. Like I said, I think it’s tricky to balance the ‘human’ side of Dr. King versus focusing too much on his mistakes, you know. I think the persona of Zuckerberg and Dr. King is quite different, one could get away with the Facebook guy because for one thing, there’s no race issue involved.

  10. That’s a great question, Ruth, and it’s a shame that a biopic hasn’t been made yet. I would love to see movies based around certain significant moments of his life, such as the Selma project that was already suggested. There is definitely a lot of excellent material that could be used.

    1. Yeah, both of these films are supposed to focus on only certain parts of Dr. King’s life instead of his ‘origins’ story if you will. I certainly think Selma has the right filmmaker and actor to make it a compelling biopic.

  11. thanks for this post, Ruth. I was wondering about the biopic myself a few weeks ago and when I saw your post it answered a lot of questions for me.

    Sad to see the projects at a standstill.

    the world could learn a lot once again from a just biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    1. Hear, hear, T. Fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long for it. Maybe it’s like waiting for a bus, suddenly they all come at once.

  12. Excellent questions raised, Ruth, and all of them, I think, hit on the problems with biopics. Can you REALLY make a film about someone as vastly important as MLK?

    I’d actually love to see Greengrass take a shot and I’d love to see him do it within that very, very specific timeframe, because it’s once you start trying to tell the entire story that I think most biopics fall apart. Too bad it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for him.

    I always thought Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” was one of the few biopics that got it right, and that’s because they let him make a 3 hour movie (which gave enough time to go into proper detail) and the film didn’t pull punches. And unless the MLK film was going to be equally bold, I’d rather they just didn’t do it.

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for reading. “And unless the MLK film was going to be equally bold, I’d rather they just didn’t do it.” I hear ya and I would like an ‘honest’ portrayal of MLK as well, but without it being overly sensational. I think if they focus on just one part of his life though, it can be done in 2 or 2.5 hrs, I don’t think the filmmakers were thinking of a ‘full’ biopic of MLK.

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