Monday Morning Critic – Oliver Stone, Martin Luther King Jr. And The Battle For Truth Vs. Reputation Among The Departed In The Movies

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Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and it’s interesting that the weekend before the holiday big news regarding Oliver Stone’s untitled MLK project broke. Stone, who was an interesting choice when picked to helm this project, departed because of script issues. And in a departure from the usual format I’m going to dedicate my entire column to this; 2,000 words on one subject is more than enough for one week, I think.

Per his interesting Twitter feed:

“My MLK project involvement has ended. I did an extensive rewrite of the script, but the producers won’t go with it. The script dealt w/ issues of adultery, conflicts within the movement, and King’s spiritual transformation into a higher, more radical being. I’m told the estate & the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man & the truth. I wish you could see the film I would’ve made. I fear if ‘they’ ever make it, it’ll be just another commemoration of the March on Washington. Martin, I grieve for you. You are still a great inspiration for your fellow Americans—but, thank God, not a saint.”

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I think there are two stories here. Either Oliver had something completely nutty in mind for a biopic of Dr. King … or anything but a sanitized version of King will only be acceptable by Dreamworks and Warner Bros. Both are worth exploring and I think the attachment of Jamie Foxx to the project can tell us a lot about the film’s future.

Foxx is still attached to the project, at least for now, and there’s no word on who’ll replace Stone or if stone’s departure will lead to Foxx’s departure as well. Foxx’s attachment will give you a clue on what attracted him to the film: Stone or the role itself. Playing Dr. King is a potential Oscar nomination/win type of role for any actor and for Foxx, who hasn’t been nominated for any of the big three (Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG) for some time.

His post Ray & Collateral filmography is actually really good for an Oscar winner, as he’s been a part of a number of terrific films, but he hasn’t had another terrific performance of his own in some time. He’s been good but not special … special is usually what gets you nominated for more than awards from television networks. Foxx is still a great actor but he hasn’t had that one role that brought out greatness. He hasn’t had downturn that someone like Cuba Gooding Jr did, with Gooding’s career having been of a decent journeyman actor with one brilliant performance out of nowhere (like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, et al).

Foxx hasn’t had another brilliant performance like he did in 2004, when he had a pair of them, but he’s shown he’s still a great actor. It’s just that it doesn’t come out in material like Valentine’s Day or Stealth, of course, but having a director like Stone on board could’ve been the right film at the right time for him. We tend to forget how good actors can be in roles because it’s been a decade before Jamie Foxx has thrown that acting fastball in his arsenal. We’ve seen it before and know it’s more than just a one time fluke, of course, but he’s kept it in the arsenal for any number of reasons.

If any director could bring that specialness out of him I think it could’ve been Stone; he’s always had a niche for bringing out complex performances out of actors. It’s why when he was announced as helming this project I was profoundly interested. Stone’s a bit of a loon but the one thing one can respect him for is that he wants his film to reflect a certain truth. That truth may be a bit crazy but … it’s an attempt at finding the truth in something.

His filmography shares themes of this fundamental notion of the human existence and too often we want our heroes of yesteryear to be clean. Especially ones like King, who were flawed men but changed the world. It’s no different than Nelson Mandela and his recent biopic (Mandela: Walk to Freedom), which was about as truthful as it could get. Mandela was a flawed man who did something profound and powerful for South Africa in the same way Martin Luther King Jr did for America.

King was a flawed man who was unfaithful to his wife, smoked and plagiarized his doctoral thesis (among other things) as well. Every great person who has changed the world for the better has been flawed, sometimes profoundly so, and King was no exception. He was a great man, of course, but he was also a flawed man. It’s a testament to our inner humanity he could be as flawed as the rest of us and do such profound things that shaped the course of American history. Humanity is imperfect, always striving to do better, and it’s in our flaws that we find common bonds.

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I think this is the fundamental truth that Stone was trying to tap into about King, about how his flaws changed him and his philosophy to help change the course of history. From what Stone tweeted out that’s what he was looking for, to boil away the myth-making and get us to the man behind MLK. There’s a fundamental truth to who he was, and who he’s been portrayed to be, in such radical ways that Stone sounds like he was going for a point in between them. He wanted to bring out an honest portrayal, which is why he chose to rewrite the script in such a way to call it “extensive.”

It’s probably why Foxx signed on, as well, because the version Stone pitched him was something that was honest and something he could sink his teeth into.

MLK is the sort of role that many have played, and many more will play, but the ability to do so is kind of like playing King Lear. Everyone wants to tackle something about this role because there’s plenty to do with it as well as the inherent challenge to it as well. There’s no definitive version of the role on film, either, which is why you can expect Hollywood to do to MLK what they’ve done to plenty of other historical figures: keep making films about aspects of their life to try and bring out different aspects of their existence.

It’s why Nowhere Boy, a look at John Lennon before the Beatles, was so interesting. Lennon before he became a rock star, when he was just a teenager trying to find his way, is something that hadn’t been looked at. It’s why King, which is probably the awful title Dreamworks and Warner would’ve given this film, could’ve been something. This was Stone’s look at what happened to turn King into the man he would become, and ultimately die as, as opposed to just another look at King during the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s during the big moments.

I can see why Stone wanted to make his version, if only because it’s a harder film to make and there’s more truth to the film-making process in it. Showcasing Foxx as King making the “I have a dream” speech is more spectacle than artistic; showcasing King as a flawed man who perhaps needed them to become the person he needed to be sounds like a brilliant film.

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It also sounds like something that could be incredibly controversial, as well, because on a certain level we don’t want to know the dirty laundry of some of history’s great men. And that’s the thing I can see why both studios involved in this film wanted nothing to do with Oliver Stone’s take on the subject. We want lavishing, praise-worthy biopics about great men were we can feel better about them (and by proxy ourselves) because of what they did. Part of the human condition is that we don’t want to acknowledge that even the best of us our flawed, sometimes in profound ways.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, of course, but delivering anything that could be negative about someone like Dr. King is kind of like making a film about how Adolf Hitler was just a wacky guy who went too far. It’s not quite “Dick Nixon, Space President vs. The Space Looters of Algoma, CA” as a serious biopic of that man … but not far from it, either. That’s the key to everything in this scenario.

It’s a battle between wanting the truth and wanting the useful narrative … because anything less than the latter is usually closer to the former.

I can see why Stone’s vision would conflict with what a studio wants; D/WB is probably going to spend $50 million or so in production costs alone on the film and they have a specific vision of what they want out of it. They want a feel good prestige picture that’ll earn them a bunch of awards and hopefully a bunch of money, too. There hasn’t been a film about Martin Luther King Jr. of note in quite some time that they have an ability to potentially find an audience of note, as well.

They want something that’ll be trumpeted as something Pete Travers would call the “definitive look at one of history’s most extraordinary men” and such superlatives. They don’t want anything resembling the phrase “a complicated look at one of history’s greatest men” or anything that could turn people away from buying tickets. People aren’t going to want to contemplate the complexities of King’s legacy in Stone’s version, or at least that’s their perspective, and want something simple and sellable to the masses.

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Oliver Stone crafting a definitive look at King by bringing out the things that aren’t taught in history class definitely isn’t that. It leads to a grand question. At what point do we sacrifice the truth in the name of a reputation for cinematic purposes?

To me that’s the ultimate question when it comes to making a film about MLK that isn’t a documentary. In a documentary you have plenty of leeway because you’re not able to fictionalize things, leave other things out, etc. King would be, for many at least, the way they look at MLK in the same way many other historical figures have had their legacies defined. Which is why this film matters to a significant degree; for many people this is going to be their first real look at MLK since history courses from secondary education.

Thus all those who need to give permission for this film, including King’s estate, don’t want something that’s going to tarnish the brand they’ve created in the years since his death. It’s like how Roger Goodell talks about damaging “The Shield” when it comes to the NFL. It’s why Stone’s leaving of this project means any chance of us getting a unique look at King are probably over, as well.

The last curiosity for this failed attempt at a film will be to take a look at Stone’s proposed shooting script, of course, but that’s another thing for another time.

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