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Pop Rocks: Why Hasn't There Been an MLK Biopic Yet?

August 28 marks a historic event in civil rights, the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom led by civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. The march, which saw roughly 250,000 people come together in peaceful protest, featured the iconic "I Have Dream Speech" delivered by King.

This week begins a seven-day long commemoration in Washington that includes a host of activities and events, including two organized rallies: Action to Realize the Dream March and Rally "Jobs, Justice & Freedom" this Sunday and the March for Jobs and Justice on August 28. President Obama will take to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 to give his own speech during The Let Freedom Ring Commemoration And Call to Action Ceremony.

It is something to marvel that this historic event happened 50 years ago; so much has changed and so little, simultaneously. Additionally, it has been just over 45 years since King was murdered at the young age of 39.

As someone who sits around all day thinking about arts and culture, it occurred to me that of all of the famous people who have done extraordinary things for this country, King is one of the few that Hollywood has decided to ignore. We have biopics about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Dandridge, we even have a movie about Tina Turner; why has Martin Luther King Jr. been left off of the list?

In 1978, a three-part miniseries entitled King: The Martin Luther King Story came out focusing on the later part of his life, 1954 to his assassination in 1968. However, the miniseries contained a slew of incorrect facts and misrepresentations, such as a meeting between King and Malcolm X that supposedly took place a year after Malcolm X was assassinated. Other than documentaries, which even then there are only a few, King has not been the focus of his own big-budget film.

The most obvious possible reason for this deficiency is due to the King estate. It is known that King's family has not been friendly towards Hollywood over the years and the rights to King's story has been limited. About four years ago, it was announced that the King estate had given rights to Dreamworks with producer Steven Spielberg at the helm. According to reports, this has been something of a dream for Spielberg and why shouldn't it be? The producer/director is known to tackle some of the greatest figures and event in history. But the initial statement about this film came out four years ago and since then... nothing.

There have been bubblings of other MLK films as of late. Director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum and United 93) has been working on a film called Memphis, which will be specifically about King's last days. Even more rumors have been swirling as to whether Forrest Whitaker will portray the legend. But Memphis has had a lot of issues getting off the ground. Apparently, the movie includes depictions of King's alleged infidelities, and this unfaithfulness is not something the King family wants to be in a movie.

 

Another King-related movie has also been on the back burner for some time. Precious director Lee Daniels has been working on a film about the somewhat controversial allegations by attorney William Pepper, who argued for years that King's killer James Earl Ray was innocent. Additionally, HBO announced that it too would be throwing its hat in the King ring with a seven-part mini-series covering King's entire history.

But talking about making a movie and actually getting one done is a very different story and my question still stands: why has it taken this long?

In mulling this over in my head, other recent biopics popped into mind. Movies need drama and true drama is not about external battles; it needs to come from within the character. The audience wants to know the "true" hero. Just recently the (somewhat poor) biopic of Steve Jobs was released and my initial reaction was what a dick the guy was, or rather that's how the movie made him to seem. This was also the case with The Social Network's protagonist/antagonist Mark Zuckerberg. King George IV of The King's Speech had serious emotional issues and the HBO biopic about Liberace made the performer look like a horrible human being. The foibles of man is what good movies are made of.

But when that man is the great American hero Martin Luther King Jr., we might have a problem. King's legacy will forever be etched in our collective conscience and the sacrifices he made for the civil rights movement are paramount. But like any person, great or not, he was a human being and he surely made some mistakes. King's legacy is also swirling with allegations of adultery, which his family denies and wants kept out of any movie about his life. Understandably.

There were also government allegations associated with King's involvement with the Communist party and this looks even worse for the government than it does for King. Additionally, there are the allegations that the government was somehow involved in King's assassination and James Earl Ray played the part of a scapegoat. Despite this information being out in the public, it's not common knowledge and if highlighted in a Hollywood movie would certainly put a stain on the King lineage; imagine a JFK-style conspiracy movie about Martin Luther King Jr and the reaction it might garner? That is just what people need to get riled up. But is it worse to leave the truth out to protect King's family and perhaps the public's sentiment?

So, does the world need a MLK biopic or should Hollywood leave well enough alone? What do you think?


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