The King family: Fighting over the dream

Martin Luther King's life was going to get the Spielberg treatment. Then a family feud turned toxic and the lawyers marched in, reports Guy Adams

For a man who preached unity and brotherhood, and so eloquently spoke about a dream that his children might grow up to be judged by the "content of their character", Martin Luther King appears to have enjoyed remarkably little success teaching those noble virtues to his own nearest and dearest.

The offspring of the late civil rights leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the struggle against racial segregation, are embroiled in an ugly dispute over plans for a Steven Spielberg film celebrating his life, times and legacy as a modern American icon.

In a deal announced this week, the famous director's production company, Dreamworks, became the first film-makers to acquire rights to King's speeches, books and back catalogue of intellectual property, including the famous speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 "march on Washington".

Spielberg intended to co-produce the biopic, billed as the "defining" tale of how King, a clergyman from Atlanta, orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycotts which kick-started the civil rights struggle in 1955, and rose to become a figurehead of the movement until he was shot and killed on a hotel balcony in 1968, at the age of 39.

In a statement to the Hollywood newspaper Variety, Spielberg said he was "honoured" to have been chosen to "tell the story of these defining, historic events", adding: "It is our hope that the creative power of film and the impact of Dr King's life can combine to present a story of undeniable power that we can all be proud of."

The news sparked huge excitement since, despite the fact that King is one of the greatest public speakers of the 20th century, no Hollywood film-maker has ever been granted permission to being his famous speeches to the big screen.

Although the movie won't be cast for some time, local pundits were on Tuesday tipping stars such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx for the lead role, and hoping that Spielberg, who made the historical films Munich and Schindler's List, might agree to return to the director's chair.

That was then. Unfortunately, less than 24 hours after the Oscar-winning director made his bullish statement, it emerged that two of King's three surviving children are threatening to sue because the lucrative film deal was brokered without either their knowledge or blessing.

Bernice King and her eldest brother, Martin III, say they are "taking action" against their estranged sibling, Dexter, who is chief executive of the King estate, because he apparently decided to negotiate the entire film deal with Spielberg and Dreamworks without attempting to seek their permission.

"We are taking action. We cannot reveal what it is at this time," Bernice told reporters. "This is a deal that Mr Spielberg and his people have entered into believing that they have the blessing of the King Estate. They don't have the blessings of Bernice and Martin King."

The comments will spark a fresh of hostilities in a long-running row between the three siblings, whose behaviour as joint beneficiaries of their father's estate has for years seen them accused of tarnishing his legacy in order to fill their own bank accounts.

Despite King's standing as a bona fide American hero, whose birthday is celebrated with an annual public holiday in the US each January, the children have always insisted on hefty remuneration from anyone wishing to print or broadcast his zealously copywrighted speeches or writings.

In the 1990s, they successfully sued USA Today and CBS for publishing and broadcasting the "I Have a Dream" speech without paying for it, in what became a test case. In 1997, the estate signed a multimedia publishing deal with Time Warner, which was reportedly worth between $30m (£19m) and $50m.

Scholars have since accused King's family of denying them access to important research materials. Yet the estate nonetheless recently saw fit to sell rights to use the "I Have a Dream" speech in television advertisements, and have attempted to sell King memorabilia to private bidders via auction.

Last year, a further scandal erupted after it emerged that Dexter King had insisted on a payment of more than $800,000 being made for the use of his father's image and writings on a planned national memorial to Martin Luther King in Washington.

That request was, however, deemed a step too far by Bernice and Martin III, who filed a high-profile lawsuit accusing Dexter of misusing funds, and asking him to open the financial accounts of their father's estate. They told reporters that their brother had for years been running the estate without their input.

Dexter King countersued, saying they were obstructing the goals of his organisation, and then fired off a second lawsuit demanding they hand over personal effects that belonged to their mother, Coretta, to a ghost writer hoping to fulfill a $1.4m deal to compile an authorised memoir.

All three lawsuits are still outstanding. Yesterday, Dexter King released a statement which, while not addressing his estranged brother and sister's specific complaints about the Spielberg film, insisted that he alone is in charge of granting access to his father's intellectual property.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders