Best Films Never Made #17: Oliver Stone’s MLK

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From his marble throne Abraham Lincoln looked out across Washington, DC. 250,000 men, woman and children were gathered before his memorial under the banner of equality and freedom, regardless of the colour of their skin. A cause familiar to Lincoln, perhaps the view would have made him smile – or perhaps he would have been dismayed that it had taken almost 100 years to get here, and journey was not yet over. As the crowds watched, their leader took to the podium to speak. The year was 1963, and his name was Martin Luther King Jr.

He had a dream.

And so did Oliver Stone. The legendary director has been behind some of the most remarkable cinematic depictions of American history and culture ever made: Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, Any Given Sunday, Natural Born Killers… His films regularly courted controversy, but over the past decade the critics who once complained about his outspoken and aggressive approach have bemoaned the balanced, contemplative tone of his recent films, including W., World Trade Centre, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Oliver Stone

However, behind the scenes of these and his various documentary projects, Stone has spent the last few years crafting a script on the life of Martin Luther King Jr, the icon of the Civil Rights movement and symbol of nonviolent protest who was violently killed in 1968. Stone called his script “one of my best” and the final film may have followed suit; a mesmeric, powerful and probing study of an American icon – the man behind the myth.

But those who guard the myth stopped him.

Samuel L Jackson as Martin L King

Samuel L Jackson as Martin L King

King’s life was a compelling drama, and has been the subject of a number of TV, film and theatrical adaptations with such dignified names as Samuel L Jackson, Paul Winfield, Jeffrey Wright and even King’s own son playing the figure, but none of these productions have been regarded as the definitive biopic. Could Stone’s MLK have changed that? Although there are some conflicting reports, it appears Dreamworks acquired the rights to King’s story back in 2009, with Steven Spielberg set to produce. In 2011, they amalgamated with a rival project at Warner Bros., where Kario Salem (Chasing Mavericks) had been working on a script. Stone signed up to direct and began redrafting Salem’s script, while Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx – both previous Oscar recipients for playing real-life figures – were rumoured to land the eponymous role, with Foxx eventually claiming it.

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Stone’s script did not aim to be a conventional biopic. In Spielberg’s words, “I 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.” This is one of the lesser known and potentially fascinating periods of King’s life: he had long been an admirer of Gandhi’s nonviolent methods of protest, and after earning a PhD in Theology and becoming a preacher, King made his way to India where his admiration for Gandhi became his inspiration. He returned to American and became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights movement while refusing to resort to violence – King was the Professor Xavier to Malcolm X’s Magneto, so to speak.

Stone is no stranger to the historical biopic: (clockwise from top left) Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison.

Stone is no stranger to the historical biopic: (clockwise from top left) Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison.

However, King was not a perfect man: he is believed to have plagiarised his doctoral thesis, had adulterous affairs, and his methods sometimes caused controversy within the Civil Rights movement. Stone aimed to show both sides to the icon. As he tweeted earlier this year: “The script dealt w/ issues of adultery, conflicts within the movement, and King’s spiritual transformation into a higher, more radical being.” His desire to present King’s story honestly caused ripples amongst the leader’s surviving relatives, who were originally behind the project. After complaints, the producers and studios shut the project down; as Stone explained: “the [King] estate & the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man & the truth.”

Despite rewriting elements of the script, Stone could not appease the producers or King Estate. Finding the truth behind the national/historical myth of great figures and events has been an eternal pursuit for Stone, and his frustration at the project’s termination was evident. He was not attempting to shatter illusions or discredit King, merely to show the man’s reality. As he concluded: “Martin, I grieve for you. You are still a great inspiration for your fellow Americans—but, thank God, not a saint.”

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What have we lost in this project? Some of Stone’s finest work has benefited from the distance and perspective created through hindsight. He is a meticulous researcher and intelligently incorporates this into his storytelling and visualisation through archival footage, editing and non-linear storytelling. He has already vividly depicted India on screen in (the sorely underrated) Alexander, and it is an exciting prospect to ponder how Stone would have mixed King’s pilgrimage there with his activism back in the USA. His ability to construct memorable sequences is likewise renowned, and should he have recreated the March on Washington or King’s assassination, it is likely that these scenes would have been memorably staged.

Most of all, Stone would have given us a portrait of King unlike the sacrosanct lessons of history lessons – shown us a real man we could identify with but nonetheless be inspired by because of his achievements. With LincolnDjango Unchained, 12 Years a SlaveThe Butler and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom sparking debate, historical discussion and mesmerising cinema audiences recently, now would have been the perfect time for a King biopic. As Stone stated in a moving Facebook status recently: “I still see the ghost of that bloody aborted child.” His loss is our own.

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What will rise from the rubble of this project? Spielberg made his own unconventional biopic acknowledging the struggle of black Americans in Lincoln, while Stone has turned to more recent history for his upcoming film on Edward Snowden; a film destined for controversy as Stone asserts that Snowden is a national hero while others deem him a traitor. Only time will tell whether Stone can turn Snowden’s story into a compelling drama – something the similarly controversial The Fifth Estate was criticised for lacking.

And as for King? Lee Daniels’ Selma looks most likely to reach the screen thanks to the new-found support of Oprah Winfrey after the pair collaborated on The Butler. However, it is unlikely that he will offer us more than the myth of King. For a vision closer to Stone’s, all eyes now turn to British director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), whose long-touted film about King’s assassination, Memphis, struggles on despite the protests of the King Estate. Which ultimately begs the question: who has the right to a man’s life and a nation’s memory?

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What’s your favourite film biopic? Who do you think deserves the biopic treatment? Let us know below…

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