Oliver Stone has run smack into the same wall on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr biopic that director Paul Greengrass hit when Universal kicked his MLK project Memphis to the curb two years back. Stone took to his Twitter account today to say that DreamWorks and Warner Bros rejected his script rewrite and that he was done with the movie that also had Jamie Foxx attached. It came down to the studios — which are in lockstep with the MLK estate that brought them the right to use his famous copyrighted speeches — rejecting Stone’s characterization of long-running rumors that King Jr. engaged in extramarital affairs. “I’m told the estate & the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man & the truth,” Stone tweeted. He also added a message directly to MLK: ‘I wish you could see the film I would’ve made. I fear if ‘they’ ever make it, it’ll be just another commemoration of the March on Washington.”
This is almost a carbon copy of what happened two years ago with Memphis, the superb script that Captain Phillips helmer Greengrass wrote and set at Universal with producer Scott Rudin. The project stopped in its tracks after a version of the script found its way to the King family, and Ambassador Andrew Young, who was one of Dr. King’s closest confidants during the turbulent Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. While Universal was never really clear on why it halted the movie, blaming scheduling, it is clear that a film disowned by MLK’s family might hurt its audience appeal. This is an incredibly difficult and emotional situation because it depicts flaws in a man whose message of tolerance and equality and nonviolence still means so much to so many and has made him one of the most galvanizing figures of the 20th Century.
I read the script for Memphis — which juxtaposed MLK’s final days, haunted by Hoover’s FBI, whose agents were then thrust into a ticking-clock thriller to find his killer — and found it to be exceptionally good, and the depiction of Dr. King with a woman who wasn’t his wife was presented in matter-of-fact fashion and wasn’t a focus of the story at all. It was just there. Young understandably felt differently. “There is testimony in congressional hearings that a lot of that information was manufactured by the FBI and wasn’t true,” Young told me. “The FBI testified to that. I was saying simply, why make up a story when the true story is so great? My only concern here is honoring the message of Martin Luther King’s life, and how you can change the world without killing anybody. You’ve seen glimpses of that in the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Poland, South Africa, in a movement in Egypt that began with prayers, where even mercenaries and the most brutal soldiers have trouble shooting someone on their knees. These regimes crumbled before nonviolent demonstrations, and that is a message the world needs.”
I suggested that when films canonize subjects, audiences can sense it, and that is why good biopics mix reverence with warts-and-all treatment. Young said: “It’s not wrong if the warts are there. But we had the most powerful and understanding wives in history: Coretta, my wife Jean, and Ralph Abernathy’s wife Juanita. These women were more dedicated and enthusiastic in pushing us into these struggles than anybody, and the inference Coretta might have been upset about Martin being gone so much or them having marital troubles, it’s just not true. Maybe I’m piqued because nobody read my book, and I tried to be honest, and I was there. We were struggling with history that we didn’t even understand, but somehow by the grace of God it came out right. We were trying to change the world — not by any means necessary, but by being dedicated to loving our enemies and praying for those who persecuted us. That’s hard to believe in this day and age. But I can remember when everybody had guns in the South, and after Martin’s house was bombed, they all came. He sent them home. Time after time, our nonviolent commitment was put the test, but that was one test we passed, even in extremely difficult circumstances.” Young said he offered input on Memphis but hasn’t heard back. “I said I would pay my own way to LA to sit with the writers, tell what really went on, and give them names, but nobody took me up on it,” he said.
Stone had no choice to move off the project, which has to be blessed by Dr. King’s heirs. Greengrass has no such shackles. When I interviewed Greengrass recently, he promised that he will make the film. He just wants to do something else beforehand as he takes his time to find the right actor to play the Civil Rights leader. Here are the comments he made, right after the death of Nelson Mandela, whose recently released biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom showed the former South African leader in a less than flattering light that included extramarital affairs. By the way, it didn’t undermine Mandela’s evolution and heroism.
“You’ll definitely see it, I’m just not quite ready to do it yet,” Greengrass told me recently. “I don’t think it will be next. I didn’t want Memphis to come out when it was all about the King of ‘I have a dream.’ There’s an arc to that very great life, somewhat the reverse of Mandela’s life. 1963 was a moment of transcendent oratorical achievement that in the following year ushered in busing rights and other civil rights acts. I was more interested in the King of ’68, very late in his life, when I think he was having a crisis of faith. That felt real to me. My family, on my father’s side, is strict Baptist. I understand the valleys and the mountains of growing up with that, in a British context. The way I see it is, any time between now and four or five years’ time it will be time to make that movie. I also need to meet the actor who’ll play him.”
These fact-based films continue to present creative quandaries, the latest of which is The Wolf Of Wall Street, which got a haul of Oscar nominations this week including Best Picture. It was among five fact-based stories that got Best Picture noms. Even though there are pitfalls, fact-based films are often the most satisfying and enduring films Hollywood makes. But DreamWorks and Warner Bros are in a bind here. Stone is right, the forgettable biopics are the ones that are too reverent to their subject. “Martin, I grieve for you,” Stone wrote. “You are still a great inspiration for your fellow Americans–but thank God, not a saint.”