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

Thursday 21 May 2009 00:00

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.

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"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.

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