Can Steven Spielberg Tell MLK’s Story?

Every year as schoolchildren, we studied the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  By now we all know the story: Dr. King was a preacher, a family man, an activist who fought for freedom, standing against the fire hoses and then gunned down in his prime.  He was a good man, practically a saint, and he wanted us all to be friends.

But as we got older, many of us learned that the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.was a bit more complicated than that. The FBI harassment and King’s infidelity to his wife, the tragically beautiful Coretta Scott King, tarnished the image we’d all held onto since elementary school. America’s original icon for change was actually a complex person with concrete fears, anxieties, and, yes, flaws.

And now that Steven Spielberg has finally gotten the green light from the King children to produce and possibly direct a biopic about MLK, Jr., how much light will this ambitious project really shed on such a familiar man and icon?

We watched Mr. Spielberg tell the great untold story of a nineteenth-century slave ship in Amistad. Saving Private Ryan tugged at the old heartstrings and grabbed five Oscars. Obviously, Spielberg loves a good, heart-wrenching story and few stories are more bittersweet than that of Dr. King.

But despite his ability to create such monumental films, how will Steven Spielberg portray Martin Luther King, Jr.? No matter what he does, there will be complaints. A saintly portrayal of King will be condemned as being sugar-coated and weak, but really delving into the ugly stuff will make it seem disrespectful. The King children won’t be any help, either. They have been notoriously controlling when it comes to their father’s life rights, even suing USA Today and CBS for using the “I Have A Dream” speech without paying.

It was a tough battle for Dreamworks to get the go-ahead for the biopic, but even now, siblings Bernice and Martin are not happy. Ideally, the children wouldn’t have any say over their famous father’s Hollywood treatment, but Dreamworks doesn’t want to make a movie that all three children don’t approve of. And while we all know Spielberg can do warm and fuzzy (think E.T.), it’s the more shocking stuff, like the combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan, that he does best. We know he’s not afraid to get into the grittier stuff, so how gritty is he willing to get with such an iconic historical figure?

And then there’s the question of who will take on the role of King. The movie is still very much in the beginning stages, but Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith are already shortlisted. It’s easy to see why, but none of them would work, as their past work and images would follow them into this role. Denzel Washington is too old (while he’s still handsome, King was assassinated at age 39). Besides, the irony of the man who played Malcolm X then playing King, X’s perceived ideological opposite, is a tough one to swallow. Smith is known, at best, for his fine portrayal of Muhammad Ali and, at worse, for bombs like Wild, Wild West. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, seems to work best in biopics, but doesn’t have the thespian persona to carry King. The good folks at Dreamworks are too smart to gamble such a huge project on a nobody actor, so the role will probably fall to one of the go-to serious black actors, Washington, Smith or Foxx. Yawn.

Even if the actor nails his role, there will most likely still be questions about who, exactly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was. And that’s the problem with any biopic; a complicated human being, especially one working in something so much bigger than himself, is very difficult to capture in two and a half hours.

I am worried about the final product of a movie like this. With so many opportunities for it to go wrong, I wonder if Spielberg can make it right. I guess at the end of the day the most important thing the movie can do is get us interested enough to learn more about King through biographies, documentaries, and speech transcripts and to keep King’s story alive and in our minds year round, instead of just on the 3rd Monday in January every year.

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