The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Steven Spielberg still has the life rights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s story. That could be a problem.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in a scene from “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The governing body that awards the Academy Awards has a long history of bestowing honors on projects that, looking back, inspire head-scratching.

Think Denzel Washington winning the Best Actor Oscar for “Training Day,” but not even receiving a nomination for “Malcom X.” Or Whoopi Goldberg winning an Oscar for “Ghost” after being passed over for her performance in “The Color Purple.” Oddly, the members of rap group Three 6 Mafia were able to claim the title of Oscar winner before Martin Scorcese, who, after an illustrious career, finally won best director plaudits for “The Departed” in 2007. Jack Nicholson won for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but not for his roles in “Easy Rider” or “Chinatown,” despite nominations for both.

Often times, these are clumsy attempts at course corrections to right longstanding snubs.

And that makes us wonder just how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will handle the, err, sticky situation that’s sure to arise if Steven Spielberg proceeds with a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., especially if he’s able to convince David Oyelowo, who played King in “Selma,” to reprise the role.

In a recent interview with Esquire, Oyelowo revealed that Spielberg asked him if he would be interested in playing King again:

I was at an event for AFI during award season and Steven Spielberg — who famously has been interested in making his own Martin Luther King film — came up to me and said, “My goodness, David, that’s one of the best things I have ever seen. You really inspired me to take another look at my Dr. King film.” And then he goes, “You would reprise the role, right? You would do it again?”My stomach all but fell out of my body. I was just like, “Oh, my lord.” That was quite a mountain to climb. Not only did idea of being asked to do it again give me pause, but here he is, Steven Spielberg of all people, [asking] if I entertain doing it again. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve already been asked by a project that will remain nameless. To be honest, right now, today I couldn’t think of anything worse. Just the weight gain alone is a reason for me to stay away from it! But I feel like we did so much we set out to do with that film. It’s time to let that film do its thing for a while before I go entertaining anything like that.

What a thorny political bramble this could make for.

Spielberg owns the life rights to King’s story, which means that he would be able to use the actual text of King’s speeches should he ever set his own film in motion. (“Selma” director Ava DuVernay had to rewrite a significant portion of the script to create original speeches for Oyelowo’s King that sounded like the ones he’d actually given.) The fact that he’s approached Oyelowo certainly suggests, at the very least, that he’s still contemplating a movie.

Despite the fact that “Selma” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, DuVernay was famously snubbed in the best director category and Oyelowo was shut out of the race for best actor. Accusations swirled throughout awards season that the film was strategically attacked for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and its lack of a white savior narrative when it became clear “Selma” was an early favorite with a great deal of momentum.

“No, look, historically — this is truly my feeling; I felt this before the situation we’re talking about, and I feel it now — generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative,” Oyelowo said during an interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival after the nominations were announced.

[David Oyelowo of ‘Selma’ says Oscars only go to black actors in ‘subservient’ roles. Is he right?]

Can you imagine the furor, if, after it passed over DuVernay and Oyelowo for “Selma,” the Academy recognized Spielberg, a darling within the organization, after he made his own King movie (with or without Oyelowo)?

It would be such a mess, fraught with inescapable racial and gender politics given the Academy’s history of bestowing the honor of best storyteller on a string of white guys, Kathryn Bigelow notwithstanding.

That day, if it ever comes — and it may not — is a long way off. But it’s impossible to make a quality King film, especially one that includes his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech,” without it being considered Oscar bait, especially with a prestige director like Spielberg attached.

The question that’s in the air, is, if it’s made, will the Academy bite?