Since 1978, starting with Paul Winfield's Emmy-nominated performance in the TV miniseries "King," a dozen actors have stepped into the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including Levar Burton in the 2001 film "Ali," Samuel L. Jackson in the 2009 Broadway play "The Mountaintop," and in 2002, King's own son Dexter Scott King in the TV movie "The Rosa Parks Story."
But throughout all the recreations of King's powerful presence and rich baritone voice, very rarely have audiences heard his own words.
For the 2014 film "Selma," considered to be King's first and so-far only biopic from a major studio, director Ava Duvernay wrote original monologues for actor David Oyelowo instead of using the activist's own speeches.
"Martin Luther King's words, most of them anyway, have copyright protection. To use the speech in its entirety, you would need to get permission from the estate," said Lisa Callif, entertainment attorney and partner at Donaldson Callif Perez LLP.
That permission is closely guarded. Since King's death in 1968, his estate — run by his children Martin Luther King III, Bernice King and Dexter Scott King — has denied most requests to use King's words for film and TV.
"They are very protective. And, you know, for good reason. They're not necessarily just being unreasonable. They have a really valuable — I'm going to call it an asset, because essentially, that's what that is at this point. They have a really valuable asset they want to protect," Callif said.
Many have criticized King's family for taking legal actions against companies like USA Today, PBS and CBS for reprinting or re-airing the activist's iconic speeches.
But it was King himself who copyrighted his famous "I Have A Dream" speech to prevent record companies and publishers from selling and distributing it.
"He cared deeply about his story and how it was going to be remembered. Right now, people are using King's words for all kinds of things that would have horrified him," said Jonahthan Eig, author of "King: A Life."
Only one person, Steven Spielberg, has the license and permission to use King's copyrighted words in film. And soon, audiences may have the chance to hear those words on the big screen.
Spielberg tapped Chris rock to produce and direct the biopic about the civil rights leader — based on Eig's critically-acclaimed biography.
We don't know yet when the film will come out or who will be stepping into the reverend's shoes to portray him, but the project is being billed as "the first theatrical motion picture to be authorized by the King estate, to create the definitive portrait of his life."
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