Spielberg to chronicle Martin Luther King's life

Almost half a century after he climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told the world that he had a dream, Martin Luther King is to receive perhaps the ultimate recognition of his standing as a modern American icon: a Steven Spielberg film chronicling his life and times.

The civil rights leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the struggle against racial segregation, will be the subject of what Spielberg has billed as the “defining” biopic about his childhood, career, and untimely assassination.

In a deal announced late on Monday, the legendary movie mogul’s production company, Dreamworks, acquired exclusive rights to King’s speeches, books and other intellectual property, including the famous speech delivered during the 1963 “march on Washington.”

Spielberg will co-produce the film, and may even end up sitting in the director’s chair. The lead role will not be cast for some time, since work on a script is still in its early stages, but Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx have already emerged among the early front-runners.

King, a clergyman from Atlanta, was behind the Montgomery bus boycotts that kick-started the civil rights struggle in 1955, and was a figurehead of the movement until he was shot and killed on hotel balcony in 1968, at the age of 39. He remains one of the most influential public speakers of the 20th Century.

Yet despite his place in history, which is celebrated with a public holiday in the US each January, King’s estate guards his legacy with extraordinary zeal, and has never previously sanctioned a film-maker to use his copywrighted speeches, and writings.

In a statement to the Hollywood newspaper Variety, Spielberg said his firm 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.”

Details of the deal were not released, but Dreamworks are likely to have paid handsomely for the privilege of telling King’s story. The preacher’s children have always, somewhat controversially, insisted on being heftily renumerated for the use of their father’s name, image and speeches.

In the 1990s, they successfully sued USA Today and CBS for publishing and broadcasting the “I Have a Dream” speech without paying for it. This year, a scandal erupted after it emerged that they had been paid more than $800,000 for the use of their father’s image on a planned public memorial to Martin Luther King in Washington.

Getting King’s three surviving children, Bernice, Dexter, and Martin Jr to agree on anything, let alone a major Hollywood film, also represents an organisational triumph. The siblings have been feuding in court since July over a $1.4 million book deal to ghost write their late mother Coretta’s memoirs.

The credit for that achievement rests with Spielberg and his business partner, Stacey Snider, who is understood to have been working on the rights deal for several years.

“In trying to tackle such an ambitious project, the question we had to ask ourselves is, ‘Why now?’” Snider told reporters this week. “The answer lies in MLK's own words: ‘All progress is precarious.’ With every step forward, new obstacles emerge and we must never forget that his life and his teachings continue to challenge us every day to stand up to hatred and inequality.”

News of the deal represents a boon to Dreamworks, which has been seriously troubled by the credit squeeze since Spielberg decided to take the company independent from the major studio Universal last year.

After months of struggling to raise $325 million it needs to get an ambitious slate of thirty planned films off the ground (its initial backer was the now-defunct financial company AIG), the firm was reported this week to be on the verge of announcing that it had successfully secured the cash.