EXCLUSIVE: For years, I’ve been writing about all the futility involved in attempts to bring the life of iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr to the screen. So here’s a big one. I’m hearing that David Simon, the architect of the HBO series The Wire, Homicide and most recently Treme, will spearhead the HBO six-hour miniseries adaptation of America: In The King Years, based on the celebrated book trilogy by Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch. Just as will happen with the Ava DuVernay-directed Selma, Oprah Winfrey will be backing this project as well in a producing capacity.
Winfrey’s Harpo banner originally set up the three books at HBO in 2010 with the plan that it would be overseen by The Kentucky Cycle playwright Robert Schenkkan. While I’ve been trying to confirm the Simon part to no avail at HBO for weeks, I’m told reliably that Simon has assured Branch that he is taking on the project, which instantly becomes a beachhead project for HBO, covering King and his relationships with Lyndon Johnson, John F and Robert Kennedy, as well as the freedom rides, the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, and the poor people’s march on Washington that he was organizing when he was killed in Memphis. It is the perfect venue to tell the story of King’s long struggle.
I’ve heard that Simon will write at least the first episode, as well as the bible for the entire mini. He and Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer will see the entire mini through completion. This is a broad canvas, spanning Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting The Waters, as well as Pillar Of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge.
As Deadline revealed last week, Winfrey came aboard to produce when Paramount signed on to acquire domestic distribution rights to Selma, a feature drama about Martin Luther King‘s 1965 landmark voting rights campaign regarded as the peak of the civil rights movement, with Ava DuVernay directing. This was the project that Lee Daniels tried unsuccessfully to make with an all-star cast. We’ve seen how important Winfrey’s involvement can be, as evidenced by the outsized gross of the film Daniels did make, The Butler, which grossed $168 million worldwide. I’m told that a big catalyst in keeping that project together has been David Oyelowo, who has long wanted to play King Jr onscreen. He had worked with DuVernay on Middle Of Nowhere and lobbied for her with Pathe and Plan B and Christian Colson. Oyelowo did the same with Winfrey when he played her son in The Butler. That is the best way to get to play a role you feel is your destiny.
There are still two other feature projects. One is at DreamWorks, which has rights to Dr. King’s copyrighted speeches but which recently lost Oliver Stone as director. The other is Memphis, a Paul Greengrass script that he hopes to direct in the next few years with Scott Rudin producing. I expect the Simon deal to make soon, and finally some headway on movies about the seminal Civil Rights figure of the 20th Century. Simon’s repped by CAA.