I’ve written quite a lot about the struggles film biopics often face on their journeys towards becoming realities, and past projects based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. are popular in that regard. One could say that it’s a miracle "Selma" finally got made, after years of MLK project announcements that would ultimately stall, typically because of pressure from his living family and influential close associates, who disapproved of aspects of each script.
Acclaimed director/producer Ken Burns apparently has long wanted to make an MLK film – although a documentary, which is his forte. But even he faced some challenges, and had to walk away previously, when the King family actually sought him out to helm a feature on MLK’s life. Why? As he said, in the below video, while speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV last week: "All through the ’90s, I would say, ‘I really want to do something on Martin Luther King… I think I am programmed to do it because every film I do somehow impacts with race, which is our great subject in America. It’s why the Civil War happened. It’s everything. But I knew that the family had a hard time letting go of him. And then, completely out of the blue, in the early 2000s I got a letter from the King family saying, ‘We think you are the best person in the world to do the biography of our husband-father.’ And I flew down to Atlanta and within a few hours I realized, ‘No, they can’t let go.’”
As for what he meant by them not being able to "let go," you can probably guess; but this is what he said next: “This is a father and a husband they could not control in life. And now in death they are [trying to control him]. And I didn’t want to sit before you [the audience & press] and begin to make apologies for the film, because it wasn’t what he wanted. So I just kindly backed away."
But he hasn’t lost interest in the project, as he said: "I’d still like to do it.”
But, obviously, he’d want the King family to "let go" and allow him as a filmmaker with many years of experience, awards and a certain reputation, to do what he does best. So there’s still a possibility of a Ken Burns directed MLK project in the future that maybe Ava DuVernay’s "Selma" has now opened the door for. Not that there haven’t been previous documentaries on King; but can we really call any of them truly comprehensive, birth-to-death, definitive portraits of the man and the legend? The kind of extensive work that Ken Burns is known for?
I’d imagine his contribution wouldn’t be a single documentary, but a multi-part series (which he’s known for) on a network like PBS or HBO. A man’s life certainly can’t be contained within a 2 hour film; although neither can it be in a, let’s say, 6-part/12-hour documentary series. But I’d take the latter over the former any day. And I think Ken Burns, given his past work, is definitely a man for the job.
In the conversation, Burns also revealed that he is working on a two-part biography of Jackie Robinson.
Watch a clip below: