Paul Greengrass Writes MEMPHIS About the Last Days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

     January 12, 2011

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Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  I know this, because it was my mother’s birthday, and she wondered which nation’s king had just died.  Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) is well aware of the date, because it serves as the climax of what looks to be his next film, Memphis.

Greengrass’ script is set in the middle of King’s visit to Memphis to support the strike of the black sanitation workers.  King was shot on the balcony of his motel room, which incited riots in dozens of cities nationwide.  No formal discussions have begun, but producer Scott Rudin (True Grit) is reportedly interested in setting up Memphis with Greengrass at Focus Features.  Memphis is one of three MLK-related films currently in the works that we know about.

The biopic from Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg appears to be the most traditional in nature, but we haven’t heard anything about the project in about a year.  Meanwhile, Precious director Lee Daniels is developing Selma, a film about the civil rights march King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. I get the sense King is more of a tangential character in that one, based on the casting of Hugh Jackman, Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Cedric the Entertainer.  And Daniels may have put Selma on the back burner to move forward with The Butler.

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Memphis has the potential for controversy, most overtly in the conspiracy fodder readily available if Greengrass chooses to go there.  As Vulture puts it: “Myriad conspiracy theories about King’s murder by James Earl Ray abound and implicate everyone from the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Green Berets, LBJ, the Memphis Police and Fire Departments, and even the Boy Scouts of America.”  (Let’s hope Greengrass chooses not to go there.)

Plus, the spring of 1968 was a rough time for King personally.  His marriage was troubled.  He was drinking and smoking heavily.  His views on the Vietnam war strained his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson.  His support of labor organization put him at odds with the Black Power movement.  And of course, at this point, death threats were sadly routine.  In fact, King’s flight to Memphis was delayed by a bomb threat.  The day before his death, King addressed the threat that you just know Greengrass has to work into the film:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Wikipedia]

I’ve long believed that the biopic genre is best served by a focused time window rather than the epic rise/fall structure most employ.  So Memphis is intriguing from that perspective.  But I’ll never be comfortable with a non-black filmmaker spearheading a Martin Luther King project.  This sounds about the most objective place to check into the story with this voice, I suppose.

And my god — who could you possibly cast as Martin Luther King, Jr.?  I’m kinda feeling Jeffrey Wright, but perhaps the most reasonable route is to cast a relative unknown and hope for the best.

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