Do We Want to See Oliver Stone and Jamie Foxx’s MLK Biopic?

potential for an MLK biopic directed by Oliver Stone and starring Jamie FoxxTime & Life Pictures

After taking on Nixon, JFK, George W. Bush, and September 11th, filmmaker Oliver Stone, along with potential star Jamie Foxx, might be DreamWorks’ choice to bring Martin Luther King Jr.’s life to the screen, as reported by The Playlist. So far, it’s not clear exactly how much or what part of King’s life DreamWorks is looking to focus on, but Stone is well known for his long, ambling biopics, particularly of political figures.

Stone doesn’t shy away from tough topics. If he’s at the helm, he’s going to want to tackle some of the more complex issues and potentially make large assumptions and leaps to serve his narrative. The man was able to make a film with some pathos for then-current president Bush, so this certainly won’t be a slam piece on one of the great American icons and heroes. But the MLK estate has been very tough on films looking to portray the more sordid aspects of King’s story, like his alleged infidelity. And with members of the King family working with DreamWorks and against rival projects (including ones from Paul Greengrass and Lee Daniels) it suggests that this may be a more sanitized vision then Stone is used to. Not only would Stone likely rankle at such demands, but erasing the complexity from MLK makes the whole film kind of pointless. Can we not handle a vision of King that paints him as something other than a martyr?

We remember Spike Lee’s Malcolm X as a great film because Lee was able to work with Alex Healy/Malcom X’s fantastic book, which was open about the various vices in the activist’s past. It didn’t hurt that the movie was blessed with Denzel Washington’s amazing performance.

Now, Jamie Foxx doesn’t really resemble King, but his quiet dignity mixed with deep, deep, anger and pain in last year’s Django Unchained was a level of subtlety he hasn’t shown since his Oscar-winning turn in Ray back in 2005. But after seeing Foxx’s goofy side this summer in White House Down, his striking dissimilarities from King could really derail this film, and it doesn’t really make sense why he’s the top choice. But clearly DreamWorks is looking for a star, and most of the other bona fide black stars are either too old to play the 39-year-old King, have already played another distinct historical figure, or both. 

What’s frustrating is that there is so much room for more interpretations of King’s life. Richard Nixon, for example, was not only the subject of one of Stone’s lengthy films, but also has appeared in documentaries, other narratives, dramas, onstage (in the superb Frost/Nixon, which, by the way, was also turned into an Oscar nominated film), in comedies like Dick, graphic novels, and even an opera. He’s been portrayed as a genius, an idiot, a crook, a coward, a fool, a hero, an opportunist, a good president, bad president, good person, and bad person. There’s a wealth of creative material all based around or involving his life. Martin Luther King Jr. is a figure as large as Nixon, and like all people, was just as complex, but we rarely get to see a true representation of what that might have been like.

In short, while it’s all well and good that filmmakers are interested in bringing MLK to the screen, it might not be possible for a divisive director like Stone and a potentially miscast star like Foxx to make this film a worthy one. And if it is regarded poorly, that might lead his family to become even more protective of his amazing story.

Not to mention, Drunk History did it first.