Few Hollywood films are as difficult to mount as the biopics of historical figures. From The Hurricane to Malcolm X, A Beautiful Mind to Munich, The Social Network to even the most recent Best Picture Oscar winner The King’s Speech, there is always criticism that the filmmakers have been either too tough or too soft on flawed protagonists. It also isn’t unusual for that criticism to begin in the early script stage, even though screenplays get rewritten and vetted so much that a first or second draft might not reflect what ultimately ends up in the finished film. A recent target was Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, whose script bizarrely was critiqued in The New York Times by a screenwriter who’d done a Hoover film years earlier and thus may have had a vested interest in seeing the new project not best his own. But what happens when the family and friends of a biopic subject get an early look at a script and don’t like what they’ve read? Should studios and/or distributors succumb to such pressure from insiders or ignore them? And what exactly in biopics constitutes fact vs fiction?
Martin Luther King Jr was killed 43 years ago today. Deadline revealed last Friday that Universal Pictures had dropped the Scott Rudin-produced and Paul Greengrass-directed MLK project Memphis. I’d heard that the decision came after the King estate and MLK confidante Andrew Young applied pressure. Young has confirmed to me (interview below) he did indeed contact Universal and objected to a Memphis script draft that, among other things, depicted marital infidelity in Dr. King’s final days. Young said he also refuted a depiction of himself securing a hotel room for a young woman who had accompanied King’s brother to Memphis.
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I learned that Young was told by Universal that it would not move forward with Memphis in response to his claims of factual inaccuracies. A studio spokesperson continues to claim that Universal’s decision was based on scheduling, specifically uncertainty whether the movie could be ready for release in time for MLK’s birthday next February. The studio denied outside pressure played any role in deep-sixing the pic.
But this is not the first time Young has had reservations about the factual accuracy of a MLK biopic. He confirmed to me he also raised objections to purported facts in the script Selma, including mentions of infidelity as well. The on-again-off-again indie drama, developed by Precious helmer Lee Daniels with backing from The Weinstein Company, is about King’s march to the steps of the State Capital Building in Montgomery weeks after marchers demonstrating about voter rights were brutally beaten by law enforcement officoals on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. “They didn’t even identify the woman who started that march, Amelia Boynton, who was beaten on the bridge and left for dead on Bloody Sunday,” Young told me. “You want to talk about a role for Oprah, there it is. They said, ‘We have our script,’ and I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ They call it poetic license, but I told them it doesn’t make sense to take poetic license when the real story is more powerful.”
Despite Young’s objections, the filmmakers behind both Selma and Memphis still hope to get their MLK projects made. Rudin and Greengrass are now looking for a new home in hopes of keeping their film on track for its February release. I read a draft of their Memphis from late last year. In my opinion, the film isn’t a biopic as much as a depiction of Dr. King’s final days as he struggled to organize a protest march on behalf of striking black municipal sanitation workers. That is juxtaposed with an intense manhunt for King’s assassin James Earl Ray, involving some of the federal authorities who, at Hoover’s direction, had dogged King’s every step with wiretaps and whispering campaigns before the civil rights leader’s death. Greengrass’s script is powerful stuff, and by the end, honors King’s struggle and ultimate sacrifice. But infidelity — which comes up in any Internet search on Dr. King — is in the script.
Young is admittedly protective of the reputation of his close friend, and said he pines for someone to do for King what Richard Attenborough did for Gandhi. He tells me when he read the script for Memphis, “I thought it was fiction.” As for the depiction of infidelity, Young said: “There is testimony in congressional hearings that a lot of that information was manufactured by the FBI and wasn’t true. 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 non-violent 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.
But that’s because the filmmakers of Memphis were still waiting on a Universal greenlight. Both Greengrass (on Bloody Sunday and United 93) and Rudin (The Social Network) are veterans of the vetting process. During Oscar season, much was made of the way that input from Facebook influenced some scenes in The Social Network, but Rudin and director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin stood their ground when Facebook asked for changes to scenes the filmmakers had corroborated independently. In the end, Mark Zuckerberg embraced it.
Hollywood has long tried to find a way to tackle King’s life for a feature film, but it was deemed too sprawling. There are now at least four different projects in the works. While HBO’s 7-hour miniseries adaptation of Taylor Branch’s book trilogy intends to cover King’s voluminous civil rights activist career from start to finish, it seems somehow appropriate that feature films like Memphis break off pieces of MLK’s journey, showing different sides of one complex legend.
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