Why's it so hard to make a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.?

By Josh Rottenberg and Anthony Breznican
Updated April 08, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

It has all the ingredients of an epic film: conflict, hope, suspense, tragedy. At its heart is a complex and charismatic leader who rose from obscurity, stirred the conscience of a nation, and helped change the course of history, only to be killed by an assassin’s bullet. You’d think that Hollywood would be falling all over itself to bring Martin Luther King Jr.‘s life to the screen. But if you’ve been hoping to see King’s story in theaters everywhere, your dream has been denied for more than four decades. ”It’s very difficult to get King’s story on screen,” says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the America in the King Years trilogy. ”I’ve been trying for almost 25 years.”

In recent months, two high-profile King film projects have derailed. Last week, Universal announced it was dropping plans to make Memphis, a dramatization of the last days of King’s life that was to be directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum). Associates of King and his family, including former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, had begun voicing objections to the project, though Universal said it was pulling out because of production deadline issues.

Last summer, another King film, Selma, from Precious director Lee Daniels, was put on indefinite hold when the filmmaker failed to raise enough funds. ”It’s really difficult to do a piece on this man, who is a hero not only to African-Americans but to the world,” Daniels says. ”He’s as close to Jesus Christ as possible for African-Americans, so you walk a fine line of servicing a story and keeping with his legacy.”

Right now, the best hope for a King biopic stands with DreamWorks, which has optioned his writings and is developing a feature film to be produced by Suzanne de Passe and Madison Jones. King copyrighted major speeches, such as ”I Have a Dream,” and those works have become a significant source of revenue for the King estate — not to mention a way for the family to maintain control of his legacy. Stacey Snider, who is developing the King film with her DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg, says she has no misgivings about working with the family because the studio and King’s heirs have a common goal: a movie about the man’s achievements, rather than his private woes. ”It’s more about what he did, what he accomplished, and the threats he was under — the danger, and the doubts he must have been feeling,” she says.

Branch, whose books will be the basis of an HBO miniseries, has a different take on King’s descendants: ”There’s no question it’s not an easy family to work with.” But he also believes studios have been queasy about depicting the hallowed civil rights movement as being frayed and contentious, as it often was. ”They were internally divided about what to do at every step of the way from the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides,” says Branch. ”That kind of conflict makes people in Hollywood nervous.” (Neither the DreamWorks movie nor the HBO series have set dates for production.)

Clarence B. Jones, who was in the thick of the internal conflict Branch describes, says he welcomes a warts-and-all movie. Jones was King’s lawyer and confidant, and recently authored the book Behind the Dream. ”Those people who really love Martin King, as I did — we want the world to know about this man through the most powerful medium that exists, which is film,” he says. ”We want it to be done with the best that we have, whether it’s going to be Lee Daniels or Steven Spielberg.”