MLK biopic battles reflect ongoing struggle with civil rights icon’s legacy

“Warts and all” is arguably of the most overused rhetorical tropes in the English language. The euphemism, normally used as a stand-in for an unvarnished portrait on something or someone, should be an assessment that places both virtues and flaws of its subject on full display.

Unfortunately, the spirit of the term gets elided when dealing with sainted cultural figures such as civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Just last week, Oliver Stone learned the perils of trying to give the Hollywood treatment to a national hero. The filmmaker announced his departure from the helm of a planned MLK biopic, in an apparent fit of exasperation with the restraints placed on the script. Stone found out the hard way why, nearly five decades after Dr. King’s assassination, the effort to bring an adaptation of his story to the big screen has proven nothing short of Herculean.

The reasons why are as unfortunate as they are obvious. For years, King’s family has maintained an iron grip on the marketing of MLK’s history, insisting on exerting veto power over every work bearing his name or image and squashing most attempts to air his considerable dirty laundry on screen.

Stone’s stormy departure from the humanitarian leader’s biopic, also expected to feature Jamie Foxx in the title role, leaves the project mired in uncertainty. Although Steven Spielberg is currently planning an MLK film of his own, the fate that befell Stone’s version suggests that whatever film ultimately makes it to the theaters will be a sanitized regurgitation of King’s life.

The famed director suggested as much on his Twitter feed, where he vented that the estate and elements of “the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man and the truth,” he added. The JFK director/producer is far from alone in that regard: a Hollywood insider reportedly told one outlet that for writers and directors looking to make an MLK movie, the King family’s approval is an almost impossible hurdle to jump over.

Even as a groundswell of black-themed movies and biographical portraits dominate the box office and reap award bounties, the King family seems to be making it tougher than ever to get an MLK movie produced. In theory, the impetus provided by new black movies should grease the runway for a King biopic. In actuality, the determination by his family to rigidly control his public image is creating a dynamic in which an MLK version will become a pallid facsimile of the wide body of civil rights books and movies already in existence.

Without having to delve into the fever swamps of baseless gossip and reed-thin speculation, there is plenty of documented evidence about MLK’s life that deserves illumination, yet remains shrouded in mystery. The devout practitioner of non-violence had a dark side to his persona, one that rendered him just as mortal and flawed as any other man.

As recounted in the memoir of former King confidante Ralph Abernathy and elsewhere, King was an inveterate womanizer who frequently cheated on this wife. The civil rights leader earned a doctorate from Boston University, the same institution which decades later determined that he had plagiarized entire swaths of his dissertation. Accusations of forgery even extended to his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Without question, many of these themes are unsavory and controversial issues, and can’t be easily reconciled with the hagiography that protects King’s public image. Movies like 42 and Malcolm X, though compelling and well-acted, told audiences much of what they already knew about Jackie Robinson and Malcolm Little. There appears to be little appetite for yet another nugatory hero worship movie, one that doubles as a glorified television movie of the week –even if it is about the most famous figure in America’s struggle for black freedom.

In fact, biopics like Mandela and The Butler may provide a template for how to give the delicate bits of MLK’s history the requisite balance and tasteful treatment. Like Dr. King, South Africa’s patron saint of liberation was himself quite popular with the ladies despite being married. While the movie glossed over Madiba’s ties to communist movements, it successfully contextualized his early embrace of guerrilla warfare, which to this day remains part of his legacy, good, bad or indifferent.

The saying “warts and all” may be trite. Still, it’s a phrase MLK’s surviving family members appear to have spent most of their adult lives trying to avoid. When the Kings aren’t bickering with one another over money, they spend much of their time in court filing lawsuits to browbeat anyone who dares to mention MLK’s name in public.

The family’s maladroit handling of his legacy is counterproductive to artistic efforts to bring a fuller understanding of his life to the big screen, at a time when the broader public is developing a better appreciation for black trailblazers. Perhaps more importantly, the King estate’s actions demonstrate a stunning lack of maturity that is an impediment to giving a balanced perspective to one of history’s most important figures.