Aside from the occasional documentary or educational material, you might be surprised to know that there are very few biopics about Martin Luther King Jr. The famed activist went to enormous lengths to fight for civil rights for people of color in the United States through nonviolence and civil disobedience. He helped to galvanize movements for civil rights that would last long after his assassination in 1968.
For better or worse, one would think that there would be more biopics about his life.
However, there are quite a few people who'd have to sign off on that. Shockingly enough, one of those people is Steven Spielberg, who has unprecedented ownership over many of MLK's iconic speeches. Why does the ET director even own them in the first place? You might be surprised to see why.
Steven Spielberg bought the film rights to MLK's life back in 2009.
While folks on TikTok are only discovering Spielberg's ownership recently, this deal was actually formed years ago.
Back in 2009, Spielberg and his DreamWorksSKG company negotiated with Dr. King's estate and obtained a license to use his copyrighted speeches in films. While gaining permission from MLK's estate is common practice for any filmmaker or even news outlet in order to directly quote Dr. King's speeches, Spielberg took his new license a step further.
Along with a license to use the speeches, Spielberg also got his hands on Dr. King's life rights. This move gave the director nigh-exclusive access to make films based on Martin Luther King Jr's life. At the time, only one of Dr. King's surviving children had signed off on the purchase. The other two children, Reverend Bernice and Martin III, immediately threatened to sue DreamWorks.
Ultimately, nothing came of these threats. Meanwhile, Spielberg had planned to make immediate use of those rights to direct a "definitive portrait" of Dr. King's life, according to sources like Forbes. Though the project was canceled, Spielberg still holds on to a license for his speeches as well as film rights.
Spielberg's ownership over King's words and life rights have reportedly been a major headache for other filmmakers with prospective ideas for an MLK biopic. Getting permission to use King's words from his surviving estate is difficult enough, but directors have previously had to alter King's speeches in their own projects. In essence, they've been walled off by Spielberg's exclusivity to King's speeches from making direct quotes.
Though he held these rights, Spielberg neglected to work on an MLK biopic for more than a decade, much to the chagrin of other directors. It wasn't until late 2023 that Spielberg showed signs of returning to the project.
In October 2023, Variety reported that comedian Chris Rock would be directing a new Martin Luther King Jr. biopic with Spielberg coming on as executive producer. In all likelihood, the film may very well take advantage of Spielberg's ownership over King's speeches.