The news broke today that Steven Spielberg is producing a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Which is awesome, clearly. His was a life marked by incredible accomplishment – Nobel Prize, the Civil Rights movement, a march-based fitness program – that was cut short by his assassination at age 39. There are lots of questions surrounding this project – who’ll star as King (I’m sure every Black actor of a certain age is tuning up his preacher voice), who’ll direct, when will we finally see it – but I’ve got just one: What the hell took so long?
I get that, apparently, the rights to King’s life have been tangled up in the family – King copyrighted all of his speeches; without which, a King film might’ve played like 30 Rock’s Janis Joplin flick, Jackie Jormp-Jomp. But every year I’d see biopics like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The World’s Fastest Indian, and A Mighty Heart – all fine, but ultimately marginal films – come down the pike and wonder, “Why is this man, who changed the face of America, not getting the same treatment?”
I’m not going to say there’s an undercurrent of racism at play – I’m also not going to say there isn’t – but people haggling over who controls someone’s estate is one of the few problems that, nine times out of 10, can be solved by throwing money at it. And, perhaps, President Obama’s election proved to those people with money that the country is ready to see the biography of an inspirational black man writ large – unlike Ray and Malcolm X, which were budget epics (Spike Lee famously needed donations from people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jordan to finish X). And HBO’s stellar Boycott, in which Jeffrey Wright played King at the beginning of his revolutionary road, was still just a TV movie.
I can remember, as a kid in the late ’70s/early ’80s, being sat down by my parents to watch Like It Is every January, when the black-centric show would run King’s speeches to commemorate his birthday, before it was a national holiday. I didn’t know the history that lived behind those speeches, but I felt it. The lure, the pull, the sheer force of that man and those words was irresistible…it’s about time Hollywood has answered the call.