Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post has an extensive piece on why Hollywood hasn’t made a definitive biopic on the life of Martin Luther King, or of the civil rights era, for that matter.
She pegs it to the opening of the movie “Talk to Me,” which which Don Cheadle as Washington disc jockey Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene tries to calm listeners in the wake of King’s assassination.
She writes, “The scene (which admittedly takes some liberties with chronology) also reminds viewers that, while familiar images of King are commonplace in 1960s montage sequences, Hollywood has yet to make the definitive King biopic. Indeed, of all the social, cultural and political touchstones of the baby boom generation — World War II, the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, feminism, gay rights, AIDS and all manner of political coverups — the civil rights movement has yet to be the subject of a pivotal, defining feature film.”
The irony in all of this is that while many different civil rights era projects languish in studio development, often with the reasoning that overseas audiences just don’t take to U.S. history, the story of King, Rosa Parks and many other aspects of civil rights history has been told, often many different times, on television. Paul Winfield starred as Martin Luther King in a 1978 miniseries “King,” Angela Bassett played Rosa Parks in a 2002 CBS TV movie, and Danny Clover starred in an excellent TNT TV movie about the civil rights marches in 2000 called “Freedom Song,” which was directed by Phil Alden Robinson. There are also countless other projects, like HBO’s “Boycott,” starring Jeffrey Wright and Terrence Howard, about the Montogomery bus boycott in the 1950s.
Of course, TV movies are quickly forgotten, and it has been a challenge to get more stories of that era into production. An effort to bring Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” considered the definitive account of the era, to the screen as an ABC miniseries never went anywhere.
But the record of quality TV projects cannot be dismissed. “Boycott,” for instance, won a Peabody award. About a decade ago, I was on the set of an ABC TV movie called “Selma, Lord, Selma,” in which the 1965 civil rights marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were recreated at that very spot in Selma, Alabama. Among the extras who were there in vintage costumes was Martin Luther King’s daughter, Yolanda King, who recently passed away. And the director, Charles Burnett, even complained that it was not easy securing permits to shoot in the town. The mayor at the time, Joseph Smitherman, had been in office since the 1960s when the marches took place.
The point of all of this is that Hollywood hasn’t ignored the civil rights era — it’s just that most of the projects have been in a medium that is here one day and gone the next.