Galloway on Film: How Hollywood Failed Martin Luther King Jr.

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King’s life story has been largely absent from the screen. It’s time for that to change.

On April 23, 1967, a small-time convict pulled off a big-time escape.

The convict, known to his jailers as Prisoner #416-J, had been held in the Missouri State Penitentiary for the past seven years and still had years to serve for armed robbery. He previously had been incarcerated for stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of postal money orders, and at age 39, he had spent a good part of his adult life behind bars. But on this spring day, he was preparing to break free.

Rising early, he took the elevator to the prison bakery, where he had worked long enough to know its ins and outs, arriving hours before his shift was due to begin. After wolfing down a dozen eggs, he found his way to a loading dock, where a large metal box had been packed with loaves for the prison’s honor farm. Climbing inside, he buried himself under the thick layers of bread.

An unknown accomplice must have helped close the box after 416-J twisted himself up, crushing and mangling many of the loaves. The box was hoisted onto a truck; a guard checked it, but failed to see the stowaway, and soon 416-J was on his way to freedom, one of fewer than a handful of men ever to have escaped the prison — and the only one to have done so successfully.

Few of us today recognize the identification number 416-J. Nor are we familiar with the alias he assumed while on the run, “Eric Galt.” But most of us know the prisoner’s real name, which soon would be associated with one of the bleakest chapters in modern American history: James Earl Ray.

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It has been almost 50 years since Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on the evening of April 4, 1968. And yet that story has never been fully told in a film.

Few versions of the tale can rival Hampton Sides’ nonfiction book Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History. Intercutting between the neurotic and possibly sociopathic Ray and the towering but vulnerable King, Sides describes the last part of the pastor’s life and the weeks following his death as Ray races away from Memphis. The object of an international manhunt that ends with his capture in London’s Heathrow Airport, Ray is caught attempting to reach Africa under another alias, Ramon George Sneyd.

Hellhound seems like perfect film fodder, with its larger-than-life characters, good-versus-evil conflict and nail-biting tension, as well as its eye-popping window into a story we thought we knew but didn’t. And yet, in the seven years since its publication, the movie version has not been made. It joins a long list of King biopics never to have reached the screen; indeed, prior to 2014’s Selma, the last filmed version of King's life story that I can recall was the 1978 TV miniseries King, starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson.

Understanding why Hellhound has been in limbo tells us much about the complicated reasons behind Hollywood’s failure to tell serious African-American stories — not to mention those of other heroes such as Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil-rights movement, who made headlines last week because of his refusal to attend the upcoming presidential inauguration.

It would be easy to blame this on simple prejudice or the absence of African-Americans in greenlight power — both of which have undoubtedly played a role — but the truth is more nuanced.

Those who (like this reporter) have criticized the industry for failing to embrace African-American-themed material might be surprised to learn that Hellhound had no shortage of admirers. Long before the book was published — before it was even written, in fact — Hollywood pounced on an 11-page treatment by Sides, which was snapped up by producers Marc Platt and Scott Stuber.

These were not minor industry figures or the kind of men who specialized in art house fare. Each had served as a high-level studio executive before branching out on his own, and each was associated with largely mainstream movies — such as Platt’s Legally Blonde and Bridge of Spies (he was also a producer on La La Land) and Stuber’s Safe House and Ted.

When Sides had finished his book, the producers hired Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) to write a screenplay, which was later shown to Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum). Greengrass passed, but decided to make his own version of the assassination story, Memphis, in tandem with producer Scott Rudin.

Critics might rightly object that no prominent African-American talent was involved behind the scenes; but at least A-list Hollywood players were doing everything to move Hellhound forward.

And then it stumbled.

First, casting a star to play King was not easy, and the producers were caught in the vicious cycle of an industry that will only greenlight African-American pictures with stars, but has never greenlighted enough African-American pictures to develop a proper black star base.

A bigger problem came with the casting of Ray. “Casey Affleck was always interested; but that’s as far as it went,” says one source. “A lot of actors were wary of playing the person who assassinated Martin Luther King. There was some pushback on that.”

There was also pushback from the King camp when it came to telling a story that portrayed their hero warts-and-all. After Universal pulled the plug on Greengrass’ Memphis, it claimed funding and scheduling issues; in fact, King’s associates had also pressured the studio.

“I thought it was fiction,” civil-rights leader Andrew Young told Deadline in April 2011. “There is testimony in congressional hearings that a lot of that information was manufactured by the FBI and wasn’t true. The FBI testified to that. I was saying, simply, why make up a story when the true story is so great?”

An even more significant hurdle was created by King’s famously litigious family, made up of siblings in conflict with one another, as well as with the filmmakers who needed their support.

That cast a pall over several other movies about King, including one that Oliver Stone was planning for DreamWorks. In January 2014, the director tweeted: “My MLK project involvement has ended. I did an extensive rewrite of the script, but the producers won’t go with it.” He added: “I’m told the estate & the ‘respectable’ black community that guard King’s reputation won’t approve it. They suffocate the man & the truth.”

Only Selma seemed to find a way around King’s heirs, with director Ava DuVernay writing speeches for King that sounded like him without actually using his words — though at the beginning, that, too, ran afoul of the estate. Selma’s success may have paved the way for other King vehicles, but inevitably it also stole their thunder.

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Despite that, Hellhound has kept chugging forward. Peter Berg (Patriots Day) at one point was attached, and Noah Hawley (Fargo) attempted to turn it into a miniseries. Now Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) reportedly has come on board, with producer-financier Molly Smith (La La Land, Sicario) as his backer. Perhaps, finally, they will get it made.

I hope so. Revering Dr. King is one thing; ensuring that his story is properly told is quite another, and it’s possible to do so while acknowledging that even a hero can be human.

And why make just one film? Great men give rise to many great stories, and great stories can be told from many points of view. But it will take pressure from all of us — on Hollywood and the King family — to make that happen.

We have a moral obligation to do so. Because King’s life isn’t just for African-Americans; it’s for everyone.

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