While Paul Greengrass has spent the year circling a number of films to mark his follow-up to “Green Zone,” it’s “Memphis” that remains the project that got away. This spring, Universal yanked the plug on the director’s Martin Luther King Jr. project that was gearing up to go into production with an ambitious February 2012 release date tentatively slated. With financing and distribution on the project gone, “Memphis” slid to the backburner, though Greengrass remained cautiously optimistic.
Over the summer Greengrass felt there was tremendous parallels happening in the world that would make a picture like “Memphis” particularly relevant. “We’ll set about making the film in due course,” he said. “The good thing is this: The way the world is turning right now makes King’s legacy and ideas increasingly more relevant. Look at what’s happened in the Middle East right now. What do we see? Millions of disenfranchised, mainly young people pressing for radical non-violent change…This great, unstoppable ideal that King developed in the U.S., is alive and moving across the world today in profound ways.” Well, it appears that someone agrees.
In a profile in Variety on Aviv Giladi, the new CEO of Access Industries’ Icon U.K. Group, it’s revealed that the company is in talks to back the production of “Memphis.” Whether they will go it alone, or pair up with one or more other partners to get the period project off the ground, remains to be seen, but clearly “Memphis” still has some life in it and be coming back into bloom.
On the face of it, it’s hard to understand why anybody would back out of a picture based on the life of the legendary civil rights leader. 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 in their strike. 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. Regardless, the project, much like Lee Daniels‘ “Selma,” ran afoul of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate.
Supporter and friend of Martin Luther King and his family, Andrew Young revealed shortly after the project was canceled that the family was concerned with the various pieces of “fiction” in the screenplay, mostly those alluding to MLK’s rumored infidelity, including one scene that had Young himself procuring a hotel room for one of his trysts. Claiming those rumors stemmed from stories spun by the FBI, he stated that the estate couldn’t support a picture that contained those elements. So it’s easy to see why Universal wouldn’t want to move forward if they didn’t have the support of the family (which would be needed in any major press campaign for the film).
Whether or not the script has since been rewritten or if the King estate is now on board is unclear, though somehow we doubt it. But it appears Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin are pressing on regardless and quietly assembling the pieces to get this one back up and running. It’s great material for someone like the politically minded Greengrass to work with, and something a little bit different as well, so we do hope that “Memphis” does get rolling again. But until it does happen, Greengrass will be keeping himself busy over at Fox, where he’ll be executive producing a new CIA drama for TV.