The children of Martin Luther King Jr. have been fairly quiet so far on the subject of Paramount’s “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-directed drama about their father’s 1965 voting-rights march through Alabama. This should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the King family’s fractious dynamics in recent years, as the three surviving heirs — Martin Luther King III, Bernice King and Dexter Scott King — have often been at odds on matters related to the civil rights leader’s celebrated legacy. (Their older sister, Yolanda Denise King, died in 2007, at age 51.)
In recent months, however, Paramount has courted the King children’s support, not without a measure of success. Bernice King attended a screening that producer Oprah Winfrey hosted at her home in Montecito, Calif., for legends of the civil rights movement, while Martin Luther King III was present at the film’s New York premiere.
King III, a global human-rights activist, opened up about “Selma” in a recent interview with Variety, describing the film as “a very emotional experience for me, personally.” He also echoed the sentiments of many that, given the national unrest over the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and numerous other unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, the historical drama “could not have come out at a more appropriate time.”
“The film shows that through endurance, you can be successful, and you can do it in a peaceful way,” King said, adding that he felt “Selma” would be especially instructive for young people eager for change, connecting the struggles of the past to those of the present day. “These issues have been here for a long time. But Dr. King’s example showed us that if we are resilient, if we stay the course, we can in fact bring about change.”
King was more measured in describing the film’s complicated depiction of his parents’ marriage — particularly a key scene in which Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) confronts her husband (David Oyelowo) over an FBI surveillance tape containing alleged evidence of his infidelity. The scene establishes that the sexual encounter heard on the tape is inauthentic, yet the implication remains that the civil rights leader was a less-than-faithful spouse.
“I don’t know that it happened the way that the film characterized it. We don’t know where the truth meets the lie,” said King. “What I heard my mom always say was that, while she was never naive, she understood the FBI’s intent was, obviously, to break up the family.”
While he questioned whether focusing on such intimate matters was entirely necessary to humanize his parents onscreen, King acknowledged the filmmakers’ right to a certain amount of creative license.
“How would Ava DuVernay know what existed in the bedroom of my mom and dad? You really have to create some of that,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I think that the film did the best it could.”
King said he hoped the movie would stir greater Hollywood interest in his father’s life and works, and perhaps even create momentum for an upcoming DreamWorks/Warner Bros. biopic set to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Because those studios licensed the rights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and speeches from the estate in 2009, the “Selma” filmmakers were forced to go the unauthorized route, with DuVernay putting her own spin on the leader’s famed speeches.
Should the Spielberg production not come to pass, the rights will be vested back to the estate in a few years — at which point, King suggested, they might become available to other filmmakers.
“There could be several films. There could be a film on Birmingham. There could be a film on Montgomery and the Rosa Parks episode,” he said, referring to the 1955-56 bus boycott that some say started the civil rights movement. “If you can make a film as powerful as (‘Selma’), I can’t imagine how powerful it would be if you used the actual words.”