Martin Luther King Jr.: Offscreen

In 1961, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was offered a cameo role in the political drama film Advise & Consent by director Otto Preminger. King was supposed to play, in Preminger’s vision, a United States Senator from the then-segregated state of Georgia.

“Just because there is no senator at present who is a Negro,” Preminger told the press, “doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a Negro in the future.”

Dr. King turned him down: “Well-meaning associates of mine felt that a positive contribution might be made by my appearance in the film as a Negro senator [. . .] I feel that the brief role could not be of any significant value in advancing civil rights, and therefore, have not accepted the proposal.”

That was the first collision between Martin Luther King and his status as a symbol of so much more than one man, and the Hollywood “dream factory,” the imagemakers who serve as both reflection of middlebrow tastes and the gatekeepers of those tastes.

After his death, the process of secular canonization of King (and the popular sanding away of the edges of his revolutionary anti-racism, anti-war, anti-capitalist message) accelerated greatly in the late 1970s. The election of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, a reconciliation-minded white southerner who was endorsed by Martin Luther King Sr., to the presidency marked a surface-level acceptance by “mainstream” America of King’s powerful symbolism (if not always his actual ideas). The push in Congress for a federal Martin Luther King Day began at this time, President Carter posthumously awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and it was around here that the first major Hollywood film and TV dramatizations of King’s life were seen.

A 1978 post-Roots miniseries starring Paul Winfield as MLK, and a small character role for actor Raymond St. Jacques in 1977’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover gave audiences their first look at a Dr. King translated to the language of the screen.

But it wasn’t until 2014’s Selma that King was the central subject of a theatrically-released film. I’ve written about that excellent film before, and might again, but what I’d like to look at on this day are the films and TV projects about Martin Luther King that didn’t get made.

Parting the Waters

In 1999, the network ABC announced that Courtney B. Vance would be playing MLK, and his real-life wife Angela Bassett would be playing Mrs. Coretta King, in an eight-hour miniseries adapted from historian Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-winning book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1964. The series, which was to be produced by actor-musician Harry Belafonte, a friend of the late Dr. King, was originally conceived as a feature film. Despite interest from director Jonathan Demme, who called it “a book with hundreds of movies in it,” studio executives and financiers told author Branch that “race films don’t sell, particularly overseas,” and the project got kicked around town without ever getting traction as a film.

Now, the series was to focus on not only Martin Luther King, but other major figures of the era, like Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover, and a concurrent series of original documentaries was proposed to accompany it. The network hoped for the “first major TV event of the 20th century.” A number of writers, both black and white, worked on the series for months, and plans were made to film on location in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma – in the very spots where history was made.  

Despite an announced January 2000 premiere date, cameras never rolled, and the new millennium came and went without Parting the Waters ever making it to America’s TV screens.

The ‘Authorized’ Story

By the late aughts, while the Paul Webb script for what would eventually become Ava DuVernay’s Selma made its way around Hollywood – unauthorized by the MLK estate for touching, briefly, on King’s marital infidelities – other projects were in the mix.

In 2009, for the first time, the family of Dr. King granted the rights for King’s copyrighted speeches to a film production: one shepherded by no less than Steven Spielberg. With the blessing of the King children, Spielberg and partners Madison Jones and Suzanne de Passe, who had just come off of producing President Obama’s first inaugural ball, seemed to be in a command position to make the definitive film on King’s life.

Yet nothing in Hollywood is that easy, especially when dealing with such weighty subject matter. White  South African playwright-turned-screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist) was brought on board in 2010 to write the script, but publicly Harwood was cagey: “”I will not say anything about my approach to this screenplay except to say what I always say: ‘I will do my utmost to be true to truth,’” he said.

While Paul Webb’s script for Selma went to the hands of director Lee Daniels, who lined up an all-star cast including Liam Neeson (as LBJ), Robert De Niro (as George Wallace), Hugh Jackman (as Selma sheriff Jim Clark), and a then-mostly-unknown David Oyelowo, the Spielberg project dragged on slowly. By 2011, Harwood was gone, and writer Kario Salem was added to the production. Salem had actually spent several years prior working on an original MLK-themed script for Warner Brothers before they combined with Spielberg’s DreamWorks to collaborate on a single film. While in India, Spielberg told reporters that he “wouldn’t call it a biopic, it’s more a story of King and the movement and also about how his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi helped to shape his moral core,” but there was still no director nor leading man attached.

In October 2013, both of those facts changed. Actor Jamie Foxx and writer-director Oliver Stone, who had worked together on the film Any Given Sunday, were announced as new talent for the DreamWorks production, with Stone intending to rewrite, basically from page one, the film’s script, and to bring the movie to the screen. Over the next few months, the project developed. The film was now to focus on the last few years of King’s life, from 1965 to 1968, and his increased involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, a decision that made King even more controversial in his lifetime, and alienated some of his oldest supporters.

By 2014, Stone was out. The director cited the new script’s take on King, which dealt with “issues of adultery, conflicts within the movement, and King’s spiritual transformation into a higher, more radical being,” as being too much in conflict with the King family and their idea of what the film should be. “Martin, I grieve for you,” Stone concluded, “You are still a great inspiration for your fellow Americans–but, thank God, not a saint.”

Since then, there hasn’t been much development on the Spielberg project, at least not that the public has been privy to. After DuVernay’s Selma was released, actor David Oyelowo told reporters that Spielberg had asked him to reprise his role for a new MLK project. “My stomach all but fell out of my body,” Oyelowo said. “That was quite a mountain to climb. Not only did the idea of being asked to do it again give me pause, but here he is, Steven Spielberg of all people, [asking] if I would entertain doing it again.”

Still, despite this, the King-estate authorized version of the Martin Luther King story remains just a thought rather than a reality.


The idea of focusing on a single moment from a pivotal figure’s life rather than the whole expanse of their life, is a worthy and valid one for a biographical film. It is what Selma was able to do very effectively, and after all, if what Jonathan Demme said is true, that Parting the Waters had “hundreds of movies” in it, then that means that there are potentially a hundred movies based on individual moments and movements from Martin Luther King’s life. That is the approach of Paul Greengrass’s unmade Memphis.

Memphis, an original script by Greengrass which he was to direct himself for Universal, would concentrate (‘docu-drama style’) on the final days of Dr. King’s life, during his Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, which came to a tragic end with his murder on April 4, 1968. Greengrass, no stranger to dramatizing real-life tragedies, from 9/11 to the Northern Irish ‘Bloody Sunday,’ wrote a script that would depict King’s last days but would also juxtapose them with the posthumous FBI manhunt for his killer, which often involved the same FBI agents who were unconstitutionally surveilling King in his lifetime. The project was planned to begin filming in June of 2011, with a Martin Luther King Day 2012 release date, but Universal Studios pulled funding. Days later, the script’s depiction of King’s infidelities was blamed for the pullout.

Former Congressman, Ambassador, and Mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young, a close colleague of King during his life, objected strongly to the script, saying “I thought it was fiction [. . .] 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 [. . .] I would pay my own way to L.A. to sit with the writers, tell what really went on, and give them names, but nobody took me up on it.”

Some time later, Greengrass attempted to get the project started with independent financing, and Forest Whitaker was attached to play Rev. King, but since 2013, there has been no news on it.

Orders to Kill

While director Lee Daniels left Selma, which was thereafter heavily rewritten by Ava DuVernay, he did not abandon MLK stories entirely.

In 2012, a more King-oblique story, based on a book called Orders to Kill, began to be developed as a film. The movie would have been directed by Daniels, and starred Hugh Jackman as William Pepper, a lawyer who represented the King family in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of murdering King, was in fact a scapegoat for a “major high level conspiracy” that included U.S. government agencies.

Certainly the subject matter of Orders to Kill would make this an even more controversial movie than some of the other proposals, but in any case, there has been no news on the project since 2012.

The closest Daniels would came to making an MLK film would be his feature The Butler, which included a brief appearance by the late actor Nelsan Ellis as Dr. King, set only minutes before his assassination.

Parting the Waters – Take Two

Over the past few years, the project based on Taylor Branch’s trilogy of MLK/Civil Rights Movement books has re-emerged, and may still happen. Moving away from ABC and to HBO, Parting the Waters has seen a resurrection.

David Simon, the architect of TV shows The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce, has been working on the project with executive producer Oprah Winfrey and writers James McBride and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The collaborators have been trying to, in Simon’s words, “figure out how to squeeze Taylor’s opus, his trilogy, ‘America in the King Years,’ through the keyhole.”

The focus, at least as thus far announced, will be on Taylor Branch’s third book in the trilogy, At Canaan’s Edge, and a look at the years 1965 to 1968. But unlike earlier takes on the material, the apparent idea is look less at King, and more at the obscure figures who played major roles in the Civil Rights Movement without ever getting the same level of recognition – people like Mississippi barber C.C. Bryant, voting rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, Pan-African socialist Kwame Ture, and others.

But despite such top-level talent and the consultation of Harry Belafonte, who, at 91, is still organizing, still marching, and still making movies (a devastating appearance in last year’s BlacKkKlansman among them), there has been not been much news on the project since 2015. Perhaps Simon is simply preoccupied with the three-season run of his series The Deuce, or maybe funding is a problem.

In any case, it does not seem like the controversies and disputes over the cinematic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be ending anytime soon. He remains, as ever, one of the most recognizable faces and one of the most potent symbols in American history, and as long as that is the case, and as long as his work and his words retain their resonance, I suspect this debate will remain fraught but meaningful.