Mike Fleming

MLKEXCLUSIVE: In their first substantial project since moving from ABC to HBO, Harpo Films’ Oprah Winfrey and Kate Forte are teaming with HBO to mount America: In the King Years, a 7-hour miniseries about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr based on Taylor Branch’s celebrated book trilogy.

Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Kentucky Cycle who most recently wrote four episodes of HBO’s 10-part mini The Pacific, will write seven hour-long episodes. HBO acquired rights to Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting The Waters, as well as Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge.

The HBO-Harpo mini means that, 42 years after his 1968 assassination, King isnow  the focal point of three ambitious projects.

Precious director Lee Daniels is gaining traction on the drama Selma. The film has struggled with budget, but I hear it’s gaining steam for a fall production start on a $22 million budget, with Harvey Weinstein circling as the missing piece of the financing puzzle. The Weinstein Co. would join Pathe as financier on a film Plan B and Christian Colson are producing. David Oyelowo (MLK), Liam Neeson (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Hugh Jackman (playing Jim Clark, one of the sheriffs who arrested the civil rights leaders) and others are setting aside time for the fall shoot. (Given Oprah’s ferocious support of Precious, it is interesting to see she and Daniels in rival MLK projects).

The third MLK project is a DreamWorks biopic that Ronald Harwood is writing, with Steven Spielberg among the producers. DreamWorks made a deal with the King estate that reportedly gives it access to exclusive papers and speeches but I’m told that HBO will be using many of the same resources for its mini.

Harpo’s Forte said that the prospect of turning all three Branch books into a mini was a key reason that Harpo left its exclusive deal with ABC in late 2008 to make minis and films for HBO.

“People have tried telling this story using Parting the Waters, but nobody had all three books until now and that was incredibly enticing for us,” she said. “This really is America in the King years, from 1954-68. Dr. King is the most dominant character, but there are so many other players who figure prominently. That includes his relationships with two presidents, JFK and Lyndon Johnson, his relationship with Coretta Scott King and his family, Bobby Kennedy, Stokely Carmichael and SNCC. This will cover the freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, Selma, and the poor people’s march on Washington that he was organizing when he was killed. It will be the seminal Civil Rights era film. We thought Robert’s work on The Pacific was incredible and he can hit the ground running.”

He will have to, as the intention is to begin shooting next year.

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