EXCLUSIVE: Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger has signed on to direct the feature film Slay the Dreamer, and he will also direct and produce a feature documentary on the same subject. Pic is based on the life of Rev. James Lawson, friend and advisor to Martin Luther King. A civil rights icon in his own right, Lawson was instrumental in the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis. During that strike, Lawson invited King to Memphis to speak to the workers, the night before his assassination.
Slay the Dreamer tells the true story of Lawson’s efforts to reopen the investigation of King’s murder. In 1976, Lawson discovered that Grace Walden — the only eyewitness to the man who shot King — had been involuntarily held in a mental institution outside Memphis since the assassination eight years earlier. Walden was held under a fake name after turning down a $100,000 reward from the FBI and refusing to sign an affidavit stating that James Earl Ray was the man she saw the day of the assassination. Walden stated emphatically that Ray looked nothing like the man she saw. Lawson had been looking for Walden for eight years and finally found her at the institution.
The film tracks the investigation to free Walden, uncovering disturbing facts and events suggesting she was correct in her and Lawson’s belief that Ray did not kill King. The House Select Committee on Assassinations met from January to June in 1978 and interviewed 4,924 witnesses. The committee found “there was no evidence of complicity of the FBI, CIA or any Government Agency in the assassination of Dr. King.’ The committee then sealed, for 50 years, all the investigative files. And the files remain sealed today.
Leonard Hill originated the project based on a script written by Donald Freed and Mark Lane. Lane was one of the original freedom riders and co-author of the books Code Zorro and Murder in Memphis about the assassination. Elizabeth Fowler will produce the docu and the narrative film with Berlinger. She recently produced Official Secrets with Ged Doherty and Melissa Zuo, the drama that premiered at Sundance and stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes about real-life whistleblower Katharine Gun.
Lost and Oz star Harold Perrineau, who brought the project to Berlinger and Fowler, will also produce.
Berlinger just completed two simultaneous projects — narrative and documentary — on serial killer Ted Bundy just days apart in January. Netflix released Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes on January 24 and just two days later, the narrative drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiered in Sundance with Zac Efron, Lily Collins and John Malkovich starring. Latter film stars Efron as Bundy, covering his relationship with longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. Netflix acquired the film at Sundance for a reported $9 million after a bidding war. Berlinger plans a similar approach of complementary projects with Lawson’s story.
“This is an extremely painful chapter of American history that for many remains unresolved,” the filmmaker said. “In this era of accountability and racial division, I am extremely humbled at the prospect of working with Revered Lawson to shine a light on what really happened that fateful day 51 years ago.”
Said Fowler: “Joe’s abilities as an investigative filmmaker in both scripted and unscripted form creates a unique opportunity to reveal shocking allegations behind this seminal event of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Lawson, who is 90 years old, will act as a consultant to the film and documentary. He has recently joined the families of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and King in calling for a new probe into their assassinations.
“On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray did not assassinate or fire a gun at Martin Luther King Jr. and the evidence is overwhelming beyond a shadow of doubt,” Lawson said. “Ray was selected as a patsy for the planners of the assassination, which was a major part of the ‘politics of assassination’ of the 1960s that changed the history of our nation toward tyranny. This film uncovers a critical portion of the important truth about the assassinations of the 1960s which has led to where we are today as a nation. The politics of assassination is a major cause of the broken systems in U.S. society today. We the people of the USA need this film to help us recover a compass towards justice and truth.”
Berlinger’s docu credits include the Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis 3, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.