I have a dream of an honest MLK movie
Controversial movie director Oliver Stone has dropped out of a planned movie on Martin Luther King Jr. (starring Jamie Foxx as King) because the studio and King family rejected his revisions to the script. Stone tweeted, “I’m told the estate & the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man & the truth.” He added, “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.”
Of course many folks dislike Stone either for his liberal politics or his overwrought, controversial Kennedy assassination movie, “JFK.” But Stone has delivered such films as “Platoon,” “Born on the 4th of July,” “Wall Street,” and “Any Given Sunday.” Further, he’s written excellent screenplays such as “Midnight Express,” “Scarface,” and “Year of the Dragon.” Love him or hate him, the man knows a thing or two about crafting compelling screen work.
But Stone ran up against the same problem Paul Greengrass did with his screenplay of “Memphis,” a long awaited project focusing on King’s final days. Reportedly the King estate frowned on Greengrass’ portrayal of King’s foibles.
There’s a reason during the King holiday we only hear snippets of King’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” The King family vigorously enforces the copyright on King’s speeches. One of the most famous speeches in American history is available for a fee. Of course, it’s appeared in ads by companies like Mercedes-Benz, Alcatel and (the now defunct) Cingular Wireless.
Not only does the King family protect their copyrights, they fiercely guard King’s image. A botched paraphrase of a quote from King’s “Drum Major” speech was removed from the King Memorial after several family members (and poet Maya Angelou) expressed their displeasure.
I’ve got no problem with the King family profiting from King. Sure it would be great if all of King’s speeches were in the public domain (which they will be in 2038), but this is America and capitalism reigns. And of course King’s children, other relatives and colleagues would be protective of his legacy. After all, Mary Todd Lincoln was deeply hurt by a behind the scenes book written by her confidante, Elizabeth Keckley following Lincoln’s assassination. Nancy Reagan has been a fierce protector of Ronald Reagan’s image.
But the reason we read biographies and watch biographical films is to learn things we don’t know. Behind the scenes information often fleshes out a person or helps us better understand their motivation.
All too often famous people and events are whitewashed. The deification of people in history has been commonplace. It wasn’t enough that George Washington was a heroic general and first president. His supporters had to invent tales of him “never telling a lie” to make him even more beloved.
Often, when we peel back the curtain and see the warts and all, it deepens our understanding and often makes the person more accessible.
In Spike Lee’s 1992 film, “Malcolm X,” Malcolm (played by Denzel Washington) was portrayed as a burglar, numbers runner, lothario and two-bit gangster before his conversion to the Nation of Islam. In one scene (that actually happened), a white college student asks Malcolm what she could do to help him and his movement and he callously dismisses her by saying, “Nothing.” After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X makes a pilgrimage to Mecca where his views on race are challenged and softened by meeting white Muslims.
Portraying Malcolm X as a criminal, a black nationalist and someone whose beliefs were evolving shows us a real person.
King’s life obviously had its share of controversy.
- It’s a fact that a Boston University investigation concluded that King plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation.
- King had often frustrating relations with President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. Our 60s idols often butted heads behind closed doors.
- One of King’s closest friends, Ralph Abernathy acknowledged in his autobiography that King had multiple extramarital affairs. And since the FBI mailed audiotapes of King’s affairs to his wife, Coretta, there must’ve been a lot of tension in their marriage.
- In King’s latter years, there was tension between he and the SCLC over his stance against Vietnam and desire to focus the movement on poor people of all races.
- On a less important note, King was a heavy smoker and he was standing on the balcony having a smoke when he was assassinated. One of his aides even took the cigarette butt and pack of cigarettes from his body so people wouldn’t know.
These things don’t diminish King’s accomplishments. They inform us that he was a man with human failings who still did great things. He was a living breathing man, not a messiah. King had doubts. He despaired. Those flaws and tough times will enable people to better relate to the man who fought hard for the nation to live up to its creed.
Oliver Stone doesn’t have to direct it, but whoever does should show us something deeper than we’ve seen. Show us the valleys so we can fully appreciate the mountaintops.
Or we can see a sanitized, noncontroversial film focusing on the “I Have a Dream” speech. I love King but I’ve already seen that movie.