By Howard Pousner
While there have been a smattering of depictions of Martin Luther King Jr. since his death in 1968, Hollywood and Broadway have long approached the slain civil rights leader with caution.
“People are somewhat holy about the iconic nature of Dr. King,” Atlanta director Kenny Leon said. “For the black community especially, it was like, he’s up there and you can’t touch him. Now, it’s come to a place where I can touch him.”
Leon is bringing the London hit “The Mountaintop,” probably starring Samuel L. Jackson, to Broadway this fall or next spring.
He’s in good company in interpreting the Atlanta minister’s story. Between movies, plays and TV, there are five major King projects in various states of production or planning, with others likely bubbling under the radar.
In addition to the largely fictional “Mountaintop,” there’s “I Dream,” the world premiere musical booked at the Alliance Theatre through the end of July. There are also two feature films at different points of progress: Lee Daniels’ independent movie “Selma,” expected to begin shooting in New Orleans in August; and the untitled authorized biopic Steven Spielberg negotiated with the King Estate, in development at DreamWorks and likely many years away from any multiplex. Then there’s a seven-hour documentary series Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films is creating for HBO.
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, is hardly surprised at the interest in exploring King’s life 42 years after his death.
“This is one of the greatest dramatic American stories you could possibly imagine,” Thompson said. “It has all of these great stops along the way, including [King] giving one of the greatest speeches in history [his “I Have a Dream” address during 1963’s March on Washington]. Then, at the peak of his eloquence, at the peak of his political [rise], you’ve got this spectacular, horrible martyrdom ending.
“You’d expect a nation like this to have thousands of adaptations of this story.”
Tony Award nominee Leon believes “there’s now enough distance” in time to explore King’s public and — notably — private lives. But Thompson points out, conversely, that so much time has passed since MLK’s passing that the American public needs a tutorial in just who he was.
“We have to face facts that we’re slowly but surely slouching toward the era where there are fewer and fewer Americans who remember him first-hand,” the Syracuse professor said. “Most school kids could tell you that Martin Luther King supported civil rights, most could tell you he was assassinated. But an awful lot of them, I’m not sure they could go much further.”
That’s one of Leon’s motivations. “I want to say something about him because I want young folks to know him, what he was about, what a change he brought to this country,” the director said.
The projects range from firmly grounded in reality (the DreamWorks biopic, HBO documentary series) to utterly fictional, but each, in its own way, attempts to express some root truth about King.
“The Mountaintop,” for instance, is American playwright Katori Hall’s imagining of a Lorraine Motel meeting between King, on the night before his assassination, and a hotel maid, who turns out to be an angel who leads him to see the future. The play shares a setting with “The Man in Room 306,” a one-man show that had an off-Broadway run early this year that depicts King riddled with doubts and regrets.
Hall told the London theater Web site whatsonstage.com that she wanted to create a King who was human, to dramatize the real pressure shouldered by a man many put on a pedestal. “That was always my intent, to create a human being,” Hall said. “And in doing that, I guess I have pierced this saintly idea of him.”
The original Paul Webb screenplay for “Selma” raised a few eyebrows with its less-than-saintly take, including a bedroom scene between King and a prostitute. But director Daniels (“Precious”) submitted that the script was still being revised and that his focus was on civil rights marches and “the African-American man who changed history.”
“I Dream” composer Douglas Tappin, a Londoner who moved to Atlanta to pursue graduate studies in theology and fell under sway of the King story, said he was interested in exposing the dreamer’s heart. “I’m trying to give artistic perspective,” Tappin said, “to show the humanity.”
Tappin was aware of some of the concurrent King projects as he worked on his rhythm-and-blues opera. But he said he was undaunted, especially since the form of “I Dream,” with its score of more than 70 compositions, was unique.
“I think historically people often sense the same inspiration at the same time. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ came out at the exact same time as ‘Godspell,’” Tappin said.
“Some are genuinely inspired and some are opportunistic and hear about other people’s inspiration and jump on the back of it,” he continued. “As it is with everything, every good idea is generally not the first time that someone’s thought about doing something.”
Through July 31. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays. $32.50-$75. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. Tickets at Woodruff Arts Center box office, 404-733-5000, www.woodruff centertickets.org.
5 MLK projects at a glance
Atlanta director Kenny Leon has committed to direct the Broadway mounting of Katori Hall’s hit London drama that imagines King’s life on the night before his assassination. Samuel L. Jackson is in discussions to portray MLK, who encounters a hotel maid (a role for which Halle Berry has read) who turns out to be an angel. A fall or spring staging expected.
Atlanta composer Douglas Tappin’s rhythm-and-blues opera, which dramatizes the big events of King’s life while delving into his some of his personal struggles, is receiving its world premiere through July 31 on the Alliance Theatre main stage.
Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is expected to begin filming in New Orleans in August. The drama is about King’s campaign to convince President Lyndon Johnson to enact the Voting Rights Act, and the famed march that resulted. British actor David Oyelowo will play King, supported by a cast that reportedly includes Hugh Jackman (as Sheriff Jim Clark), Liam Neeson (Lyndon Baines Johnson), Robert De Niro (George Wallace), Cedric the Entertainer (Ralph David Abernathy) and Lenny Kravitz (Andrew Young).
Untitled DreamWorks biopic
When Steven Spielberg struck a 2009 deal with Dexter King, DreamWorks described the project as “the first theatrical motion picture to be authorized by the King Estate to utilize the intellectual property to create the definitive portrait of his life.” A lawsuit between Dexter and his siblings Bernice and Martin III over control of MLK’s copyright and intellectual property was resolved in March, meaning “things were able to move again” at DreamWorks, spokesman Marvin Levy said. Ronald Harwood, who won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for “The Pianist,” is the screenwriter.
“America: In the King Years”
As part of Oprah Winfrey’s new production deal with HBO, her Harpo Films is producing a seven-hour miniseries on MLK’s life, based on Taylor Branch’s trilogy “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge.” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan is the writer. “This really is America in the King years, from 1954-68,” producer Kate Forte said in a statement when the project was announced in May.
– Howard Pousner