Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Are some legends unfilmable?

When Spike Lee released the brilliant Malcolm X in 1992, my first thought was, "Wow, I can't wait to see what he does with the life of Martin Luther King."

I'm still waiting.

We live in an era when Hollywood never leaves a hot idea untapped for long, and as proof of its devotion to certain ideas, reboots them before the corpse of the original is even cold. (The Incredible Hulk and this year's upcoming Fast & Furious are great examples and probably worthy of another post). But the same is most definitely not true for biopics. In fact, it seems like some of the truly deserving characters in the history of our nation -- indeed, the history of the world -- have yet to find a home in the cineplexes.

The conversation starts with Martin Luther King Jr., though it certainly doesn't end there. But while we're on MLK -- it being his birthday and all -- let's figure out what's behind his particular case. I do have some guesses.

1) He is such a beloved figure that no one wants to get his story wrong. I mean, the guy has his own holiday. The reverence reserved for him borders on the religious, and I certainly have no desire to dispute that. Any serious film about Martin Luther King would have to delve into unsavory aspects of his life -- such as his purported dalliances with women who weren't his wife -- and it may just be perceived that no good can come from that, in the public sphere.

2) Many inferior tellings of his story have already saturated the marketplace. While there has yet to be a truly authoritative prestige picture in the mold of Malcolm X, the man's story has been filmed numerous times. A large number of documentaries and a smattering of features about this man already exist. Perhaps because the features have generally been done quickly and had a TV-movie sheen to them, there's a sense that a theatrical feature would be stigmatized by being associated with its forbears.

3) It's more interesting for a filmmaker to tell the story of a flawed person. I'm not saying Martin Luther King wasn't flawed, but compared to Malcolm X, he was a frigging saint. If you're going to devote 205 minutes to the telling of a man's story, as Lee did with Malcolm X, you can't devote only 20 minutes to bad behavior. Generally speaking, I think filmmakers are drawn to characters who are not only tragic because they were killed, but tragic because of choices they made and ways they could not see themselves clearly. King's just about the best behavioral model you can think of, outside of someone like ... Barack Obama. (And I'm really interested to see what Lee -- or whoever he hands the baton to -- will do with Obama's story sometime in the 2020's).

My guess is that it's this last that really stops filmmakers in their tracks. Let's take someone like John F. Kennedy. "But wait," you say. "What about Oliver Stone's JFK?" Lest you forget, that wasn't the story of his life -- it was the story of his assassination. And sure, Kennedy has appeared as a character in many films, such as Thirteen Days. (Not by any means the most important example, just the one I could think of right now). But there hasn't been a prominent film about the man and his life yet. You could say the same thing about guys like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Sure, they've both been filmed numerous times, but it was usually either something done for television, or as a character in a movie with a broader scope.

When filmmakers focus their lens on someone famous, they want it to be someone a little unexpected, like HBO recently did with its series John Adams. Those who flocked to John Adams almost certainly did it for one of three reasons: 1) The acting (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney); 2) The fact that it's on HBO; or 3) "Hey, I know he was a president -- but shit, I don't know anything else about him." Exactly. These filmmakers can make the definitive John Adams movie, and not worry about other cinematic interpretations that have come before. Lee could pretty much say the same thing about Malcolm X. Even as famous as he was, Lee basically "introduced" him to the world by virtue of the fact that he hadn't already been under the lens, in half-assed ways, a hundred times.

I guess when you come right down to it, X is more interesting than King in the same way that Richard Nixon is more interesting than Jimmy Carter -- and George W. Bush is more interesting than his dad. I mean, why do you think it is that Oliver Stone made Nixon and W., but never even considered making Carter and H.W.? According to Stone, the story of George W. Bush demanded to be made so much, we shouldn't even wait until the guy left office.

So will we ever see Spike Lee's Martin Luther King, or maybe just King? I guess I don't rightly know. But maybe now that Obama is in the White House, we can finally dig below the surface and paint a portrait of the real, flawed man that he was. Maybe now, the black man will achieve cinema's measure of the equality his race has always been seeking:

A biopic of a genuine human being, warts and all.


Don Handsome said...

Could it be that someone like MLK is unfilmable because everyone already has one of the most cinematic moments of his life committed to memory (who can't hear his epic tone when thinking about "I have a dream"?) so well that no film could ever do it justice (tell me an actor who could pull it off).

Furthermore, no one would be that interested in seeing a guy like MLK brought down a peg...he's elevated to the level of saint in our minds so even though we know that there is dirt there, we're just not that interested. At least that's my opinion.

X worked well on film because many people didn't know too much about him, or we knew him as a radical and weren't sure weather we should respect him or not. Spike Lee captured in his film the urgency that is in Malcom X's autobiography...that he was constantly revising and revisiting his opinions and wasn't afraid to say he was wrong. This sort of heroically flawed character could be elevated by a film and explored (for many for the first time) by a film, which is more than we can say about MLK who is already celebrated and MAY even run the risk of a box office limiting overexposure.

Anonymous said...

In addition to his womanizing, don't forget about MLK's plagiarism of part of his dissertation at B.U. in speaking of his flaws