Reports are surfacing that DreamWorks is ready to move forward with the authorized version of Martin Luther King‘s life story, the one that MLK’s family is behind and which has the rights to use his copyrighted speeches. They have Jamie Foxx and director Oliver Stone poised for an Any Given Sunday re-team on the project, which they want to do with Warner Bros. All I can think of as director Paul Greengrass and producer Scott Rudin prepare for tomorrow’s opening of Captain Phillips is, Paul, get busy on your MLK film Memphis, because your Oscar-caliber script is just way too good to get relegated to the scrap heap.
I’ve been writing for years about Memphis, Greengrass‘ script about a great man’s final days. It started out at Universal, which put it in turnaround right around the time that the director’s relationship with the studio soured over his unwillingness to do a fourth The Bourne Identity and after he clashed with the studio over the high-budget misfire Green Zone. It became a hot potato project then, when the King family and the activist’s close confidante, Ambassador Andrew Young, objected to it. Among their objections: King is depicted sharing a bed with a woman who was not his wife. The key has always been about opening the film on MLK weekend, and it stalled that first time because they couldn’t set it up again and make it fast enough. They tried again last year, with Veritas in talks to finance with Wild Bunch, but Greengrass instead took on Captain Phillips, the Sony drama about the Somali pirate heist that stars Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips. Rudin joined his Social Network cohorts Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti to deliver a tense, excellent drama.
The Memphis script depicts King’s final days as he struggled to organize a protest march on behalf of striking black municipal sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, where he was slain. That storyline is juxtaposed with an intense manhunt for King’s assassin James Earl Ray, involving some of the federal authorities who, at Hoover’s direction, had dogged King’s every step with wiretaps and whispering campaigns before the civil rights leader’s death. The dual narrative is explosive and I don’t know what Kario Salem has written for DreamWorks, but the word biopic makes you worry that it will be reverential and looong. Memphis was a snapshot on parallel with Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday. It is a powerful testament to King’s struggle and his sacrifice, and even if he was portrayed as an imperfect human being, it did not define him. Let’s face it, all those ’60s icons including the Kennedys were not monogamous.
When Greengrass and Rudin went down the path with DreamWorks on Chicago 7, the cynic in me thought the studio offered him a plum Aaron Sorkin script to keep Greengrass on the shelf for a year while Spielberg and Snider’s company continued progress on their MLK project. Greengrass dropped out of Chicago 7, and he has nothing set that we know of. Oliver Stone and Jamie Foxx are a potent pairing, but I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: Memphis is as good or better than any script that I’ve read over the past five years. Some have said there might be challenges over MLK’s signature speeches, which DreamWorks claims to have under lock and key. But Rudin skillfully navigated telling the Mark Zuckerberg Facebook story — at one point, Zuckerberg said he’s cooperate if they didn’t call it Facebook — and the producer and David Fincher made an Oscar-nominated film without getting sued. My spider sense is tingling here, and I bet this is going to get interesting.