Oscars: How 'Selma' Filmmakers Made a Movie About MLK Without Using His Words

Martin Luther King Jr.
AP Images

Because Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches are copyrighted — and licensed to another project — the film was made without his famous quotes, his licensed life story or the blessing of his children

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Paramount's Selma opens Dec. 25, it will do so without the support of three of the people most vested in its success -- Bernice King, Dexter Scott King and Martin Luther King III. The warring children of Martin Luther King Jr. never have been able to unite on any film project, and two of them reportedly are not even on speaking terms with the third.

Paramount sources say that that third sibling, Dexter, still has not seen the movie (unlike Bernice and MLK III) despite invitations to screenings. The drama -- which stars David Oyelowo as King, Carmen Ejogo as wife Coretta, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson -- centers on King's three 1965 marches in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, that pushed the passage of that year's Voting Rights Act.

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Selma doubtless will be helped by the support of Oprah Winfrey -- who plays civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper in the film, serves as a producer and hosted a Santa Barbara screening in early December -- along with civil rights leaders who have seen the movie, including John Lewis and Andrew Young. But the family's silence poses a potential problem for the film, which is attempting to follow last year's 12 Years a Slave (also from Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment) by capturing a best picture Oscar. Awards campaigns increasingly have counted on endorsements from either the films' subjects or the subjects' family members to confirm their authenticity.

Although the King heirs have not offered their support for Selma, none has come out against the movie -- despite the fact that King's speeches remain the property of the King estate, which in 2009 licensed them (along with rights to King's life) to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for a still-untitled King biopic that Steven Spielberg is set to produce. (That movie had Oliver Stone circling to direct, but he is no longer connected.) At one point, Selma's producers held meetings with reps for DreamWorks and Warners but were unable to buy the rights.

Because King's speeches were licensed to another project, Selma's filmmakers had to find a way to re-create the meaning of MLK's words without tres­passing on his actual, historic language. That means they had to rewrite MLK, though sometimes this meant just altering a verb or two. During the scene at the funeral of civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson, for instance, the MLK in the film gives a rousing oratory, asking the crowd, "Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?" In real life, King asked, "Who killed him?" In another scene, King rallies protestors with the words, "Give us the vote," while in reality King said, "Give us the ballot." The film skirts close to the words without using them.

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"This is manufactured dialogue," says Chuck Fager, a longtime King associate (and Selma cellmate) who hasn't seen the movie but has read portions of the script. "The dialogue differs markedly from [the actual] quotes."

"This is not King, but it is very well done," says David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer (Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) who is no fan of the King family. "It captures him very nicely while evading the clutches of the evil greedy family."

Once they realized how complicated the family situation was, the producers never even attempted to clinch a deal with the King heirs. "There were no negotiations," says Sophie Glover, head of publicity for Pathe UK, which co-financed the picture. "The film does not use any copyrighted material."

Other King projects in development have been dogged by the family's internecine warfare, including Paul Greengrass' Memphis. In the past, the King siblings have taken multiple legal actions regarding copyright issues, including actions against USA Today, CBS, the 1987 PBS series Eyes on the Prize, actor-activist Harry Belafonte and even each other.

King Center representatives did not respond to requests for comment, though Bernice King met with Oyelowo when the actor bumped into her May 16 while visiting the King Center in Atlanta during preproduction. Oyelowo has said that she gave him her blessing.

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Rights to King's speeches are controlled by Intellectual Properties Management, which charged $761,160 to use the pastor's words and images on the MLK monument in D.C., in addition to a $71,000 "management fee" for the family. The family auctioned King's papers for $32 million in 2006, and former Time columnist Jack White has estimated that King's heirs have made $50 million on their father's legacy.

They will not, however, see a penny from Selma.

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