King Estate’s Disapproval Forces Oliver Stone to Drop MLK Biopic
Controversial director Oliver Stone has been circling a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic for months, but he took to Twitter just three days before MLK Day to announce that his involvement with the project has come to an end.
Jamie Foxx was reportedly attached to the role of King before DreamWorks and Warner Bros. rejected Stone’s latest script.
The news marks another wrinkle in the King estate’s tight grip on the civil-rights leader’s namesake. The studios were working in tandem with the family, who granted the right to use King’s copyrighted speeches, but now seems to have raised eyebrows at Stone’s approach. The family could damage the credibility and success of the movie if they express disdain.
Stone has been criticized for taking factual liberties in his previous historical features, namely 1991’s “JFK,” which implied that Lyndon B. Johnson staged a coup d’etat prior to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Still, regardless of what could be seen as the director’s iffy credibility, it’s clear that the King estate is unwilling to back a biopic that shines any sort of negative light on MLK.
Director Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “Captain Phillips”) faced a similar predicament in 2011 with “Memphis,” another biopic that mentioned King’s alleged extramarital affairs. Universal nixed “Memphis” after the estate reportedly told the studio it would condemn the movie if it enters production. (Greengrass has since said the film will “definitely” still be made.) Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Butler”) received the same pressure a few years ago regarding his script for voting-rights docudrama “Selma,” which also contained references to sordid details about King’s life. “Middle of Nowhere” director Ava DuVernay has taken over that project.
Deadline.com spoke with one of King’s closest confidants, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, in 2011, after he contacted Universal to refute the claims made in Greengrass’ script. When asked why he and the estate refused to submit to the standard warts-and-all approach that is often better received than biopics containing only sycophantic depictions of their subjects, Young said:
“My only concern here is honoring the message of Martin Luther King’s life, and how you can change the world without killing anybody. … 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.”