Both Martin Luther King Jr.’s living kin and the Civil Rights icon’s former confidante Andrew Young, are very protective of the man’s legacy – which is why biographical projects like Precious director Lee Daniels’ Selma and filmmaker Paul Greengrass’ (Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) Memphis have fallen into Development Purgatory over the past couple years (due to objections from both Young and the King family about how the scripts portray the famous reverend).
However, just a few months ago, we learned that Daniels is moving forward with a different MLK flick titled Orders to Kill, with Hugh Jackman playing the attorney who investigated MLK’s assassination. Furthermore, reports are in that Greengrass’ Memphis is regaining momentum and looks to become his next directorial effort.
Greengrass and Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, The Social Network) put Memphis on the back-burner after Universal backed out as financier and distributor – which Deadline partly attributed to pressure from the King estate – instead moving forward with Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks (and based on the memoir A Captain’s Duty). Memphis is a terse dramatization of historical events (similar to United 93) and described as follows:
The script depicts Dr. King’s final days as he struggled to organize a protest march on behalf of striking black municipal sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was slain. That storyline is juxtaposed with an intense manhunt for King’s assassin James Earl Ray, involving some of the federal authorities who, at Hoover’s direction, had dogged King’s every step with wiretaps and whispering campaigns before the civil rights leader’s death.
Memphis is said to be a pretty accurate portrayal of these events, thanks to heavy research from Greengrass (whose screenplay is referred to by Deadline as “Oscar-caliber stuff”). However, Young has voiced his complaints about how the project handles subjects King’s infidelity – which is touched upon in the script, since King’s marriage (by that point) had become heavily-strained by the constant threats and dangers resulting from his socio-political activism.
Veritas and Wild Bunch are currently in talks to fund Memphis, with the plan being for Greengrass and Rudin to make the project their next collaboration. It certainly reads as an excellent match for the director’s talent for propulsive storytelling and effective visceral style of action filmmaking, which best served the Bourne series and United 93; even Greengrass’ not-so-beloved politically-charged Matt Damon thriller, Green Zone, benefited from his involvement.
As Lincoln (read our review) illustrates, a biopic script that narrows its focus can be quite insightful about its subject – and makes their experiences relevant to our times – especially when married to the right auteur. Greengrass’ sensibilities make him a strong choice to bring King’s story to life in an intense (and emotion-draining) fashion for that reason. Here’s hoping Memphis doesn’t hit another major roadblock on its journey to the big screen (knock on wood).
More on Memphis as the story develops.