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Paul Greengrass’ Martin Luther King biopic hits snag

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Director Paul Greengrass (of Bourne and United 93 fame) was developing a film for Universal about the last days of Martin Luther King, Jr., but according to Deadline, Universal has scrapped Memphis over stated concerns that Greengrass wouldn't be able to finish it in time for the planned release date of MLK Day 2012.

This is the second film about King to hit trouble recently; The Weinstein Company gave Precious director Lee Daniels $8 million to make a film called Selma last year, but that's apparently stalled out, despite the rumored involvedment of Hugh Jackman and Robert De Niro. Deadline suggests that the King estate wasn't happy with either script, which might well have had more to do with the project falling through than any scheduling concerns; public disapproval from the family could cost any studio a lot of ticket money. Selma's screenplay apparently was frank about King's extramarital dalliances, which could've been part of the problem.

Meanwhile, both Oprah and Steven Spielberg also have King-related projects in the works; either of them has more clout than Greengrass, Daniels, Jackman, and De Niro combined, so their King pictures might actually come to fruition. (A fifth film is the pet project of one Wesley Snipes; his clout may be somewhat diminished, as he is currently serving time for tax evasion.)

Greengrass and his partners are apparently seeking new backing for Memphis. Personally, while I know Greengrass has shown a lot of ability to handle ugly real-life events in a tasteful, journalistic way (note United 93), I wonder if a film about King's assassination is the best way to commemorate his life. If you ever go to Memphis, you can meet Jacqueline Smith, who for twenty years has sat outside the hotel where King was shot to protest its conversion to a museum. One of her arguments: a "museum" that showcases bloody rifle bullets and CSI-style ballistics reconstructions is more a ghoulish tourist trap than any kind of tribute to King and his fight for civil rights. Some years back, when I was a road-tripping college student, she convinced me not to give the museum my money; I wonder what she'd say to Paul Greengrass.