Today in history… April 4th, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old.
As far as I know, there have been at least 5 film projects in the works based on either the life of MLK, or some significant period during his 39 years on this planet; most recently announced, the Paul Greengrass-directed MLK assassination pic, Memphis, which was once a sure-thing, but the studio backing it, Universal Pictures, later backed out of financing and distributing the film; word on the street was that pressure from the MLK estate (and Andrew Young’s objections) to call off the project, because they were unhappy with the script, was one of the reasons.
The film, which was supposed to focus on the events leading up to King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, while he was trying to organize the city’s sanitation workers in spring of 1968, was to begin shooting last summer, for an early 2012 release. Obviously, that’s not happening.
The other MLK projects in the works include, of course, Lee Daniels’ Selma (currently in limbo, due to financing issues, as well as the very same reasons Greengrass’ project has stalled – the King estate being unhappy with the script, and Andrew Young’s objections); then there’s Oprah’s HBO miniseries (should be a go, expected in 2012), the Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks project that has the backing of King’s estate (likely will also push forward; after all it’s Spielberg and Dreamworks), and Wesley Snipes’ planned exploration of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit MLK, and the fallout that followed, titled Code Name Zorro (he’s still in prison, right? So, I wouldn’t be looking for this one anytime soon).
But going back to reasons for the delays in MLK projects from Greengrass and Daniels… some may recall my post on Stokely Carmichael‘s, aka Kwame Ture‘s inisistence on depicting virtues versus virces in filmic representations of real-life people (like MLK).
As noted, one of the reasons for the holdup in the production of those 2 rather high-profile MLK film projects – both which would (reportedly) emphasize MLK’s vices, and not just revel in hagiography – was Andrew Young’s objections – the civil rights activist, member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 60s Civil Rights Movement, a supporter and good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a key role in the events in Birmingham, Alabama, was a strategist and negotiator that influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. And also, he was with MLK in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated in 1968.
Young reportedly objected to scripts which included scenes of marital infidelity during MLK’s final days, among other “vices.”
Some might express concern for the play that ran on Broadway last fall, through early this year (The Mountaintop, with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett starring) that “humanizes” MLK, as the play’s stars have said in interviews they did while marketing the production.
The same thing could be said for holdups in developments of maybe 1 of the Marvin Gaye projects that have been in the works for awhile; specifically, Janis Gaye, the late singer’s second and last wife, who objected to British director Julien Temple’s project which she reportedly said would “focus on his drug abuse, on other negative aspects of his life.“
Kwame Ture suggested that Hollywood peddles vice as entertainment, and he obviously has a problem with that.
Obviously, there are those of us who prefer that films/projects like the above, about these iconic figures of history should essentially canonize them, or at least, as Kwame Ture notes, focus on their virtues and not their vices. And there are those of us who feel that a warts and all depiction “humanizes” them, making their achievements more accessible to those of us who hold them in such high regard.
Where do you stand?
I think this also ties in very nicely with our ongoing discussions about the “burden of representation” some expect black public figures to carry and others don’t; or more specifically, the battle between “positive” and “negative” portrayals of black people on screen.
I haven’t heard much about what Spielberg’s or Oprah’s MLK projects comtain in terms of content; given that both seem to be near-sure-things (especially the Spielberg project which has the backing of the King estate); I can only assume that both of those projects are, shall we say, more wholesome, family-friendly tellings of MLK’s life.
But, thus far, none of the projects mentioned above is in production, as far as I know, so, anything’s possible; let’s see which of these makes it first to the finish line.