Why MLK is hardly a 'dream' role

african kings

The announcement of Samuel L. Jackson’s Broadway debut as Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Mountaintop, currently slated to begin previews in September and open on October 13, is generating a lot of conversation.

Since King was just 39 when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, some feel Jackson, who is 62, is too old to play the part. Others actually appear pleased that a major film star such as Jackson, with an impressive theater background that includes substantial August Wilson roles, will take on the complex task of portraying Dr. King.

Meanwhile, others question Jackson’s selection based on his previous roles, such as his star turn as the hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction who liberally used cuss words and also recited biblical passages before offing his targets. Then there are others who object to the crackhead “Gator” from Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever playing a “saint” like Dr. King.

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For what it’s worth, Jackson did grow up in the segregated south, in Chattanooga, as well as attended Morehouse College (King’s alma mater) in the 1960s, not to mention the fact that he served as an usher at King’s funeral. So, arguably, his personal experiences could add a depth to his Dr. King portrayal that might elude younger actors. Then there’s the added complexity of the play itself, which is very much a fictional work.

According to Deadline, The Mountaintop from young, Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall, which takes place on April 3, 1968, “is a gripping re-imagining of events the night before the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he retires to Room 306 in the now famous Lorraine Motel in Memphis, after delivering his legendary ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech to a massive church congregation. When room-service is delivered by a young woman, whose identity we puzzle over, King is forced to confront his past, as well as his legacy to his people.”

It should be noted that Hall’s The Mountaintop is similar in premise to playwright/actor Craig Alan Edwards’s one-man show, The Man in Room 306, which Edwards, who resembles King some, first originated in Montclair, NJ, in 1995, but ran off-Broadway just last year. Like The Mountaintop, The Man in Room 306 also renders a fictional account of Dr. King’s last night at the Lorraine Motel. Hall’s version, however, comes with a lot more buzz. Originally staged in London, The Mountaintop has won several prestigious awards, including the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play. If that weren’t enough, Halle Berry was once attached. With a production that’s sure to attract significant Tony Award attention, some are hoping that the production will light a fire under the several proposed King films in the works.

As much of a natural fit as Dr. King’s life is for the big screen, there’s never been a major biopic. But that isn’t because there’s been a lack of interest. The King family reportedly sold Oliver Stone film rights to Dr. King’s life and death as early as 1997 but nothing has come of that project. Earlier this month, Universal Pictures pulled out of director Paul Greengrass’s promising Memphis, which had been rumored to be ready to film this year. The move, reportedly, came on the heels of vocal objections from Andrew Young.

Shadow and Act, a web center focused on “cinema of the African Diaspora,” ran a story on April 4, the day of King’s assassination, about a Deadline expose pointing to Andrew Young as the reason the Paul Greengrass-proposed King film got the ax from Universal as well as why Lee Daniels’ Selma has yet to take flight.

Young confirmed to Deadline’s Mike Flemming that he contacted Universal concerned about factual inaccuracies. In fact, Young stated that “I thought it was fiction” in reference to reading the Memphis script. Additionally, he made similar objections to Selma. “They didn’t even identify the woman who started that march, Amelia Boynton, who was beaten on the bridge and left for dead on Bloody Sunday,” according to Young. Interestingly, both films also include portrayals of Dr. King’s alleged infidelities.

On top of that, Young himself has an interest in film and television, as evidenced by his recent venture with the proposed black channel Bounce and several of his own small projects on various subjects that have aired in Atlanta.

Young made no bones to Flemming about wanting to be included in these projects and that could be a good and a bad thing. On one hand, he was there and could offer valuable insight but that’s only if he was concerned about presenting Dr. King as a flawed, heroic figure and not the saintly martyr that has so often been presented in the mainstream.

Still, all is not lost. Oprah Winfrey does have a seven-hour miniseries in the works for HBO entitled America: In the King Years for 2012. The miniseries is based on Taylor Branch’s acclaimed books, Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, who wrote four episodes of the HBO miniseries The Pacific, is on board.

Then there is a Steven Spielberg and Suzanne De Passe produced King biopic in the works. Spielberg is of course known for the beloved The Color Purple and De Passe, a former Motown exec, penned the well-received Lady Sings the Blues. Although the rights were acquired from the King Estate in 2009, so far, there’s been no public announcement of when that biopic might make it to the big screen.

Although Greengrass is determined to still get his Memphis filmed this year for a February 2012 release, there are even bigger issues like who will play King. Jeffrey Wright was great as King in the HBO film Boycott about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, despite bearing no physical resemblance to him, but now he is probably too old for consideration and there aren’t many young actors of his caliber that come to mind as being able to tackle King.

Sadly, the reality may be that, even with a film ready to go, King may be a figure too large for life for any actor to get right on the big screen (what’s permissible on stage i.e. Samuel L. Jackson as King or on television, for that matter, and what’s permissible on the big screen differ greatly). With so much film footage documenting the real thing, it’s just hard to imagine a worthy substitute.