January 12, 2015

Why you won’t hear any actual lines from MLK’s speeches in the movie Selma


Screen shot 2015-01-11 at 10.25.14 PMThe powerful movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is a biographical drama about Martin Luther King’s role in the civil rights marches in 1965. But you won’t hear any direct quotes from King’s actual speeches in the movie.

Why? King’s children control the rights to his speeches, which courts ruled in the 1990s do not belong in the public domain. The film rights were sold to Steven Spielberg‘s production company DreamWorks (although back in 2009, Bernice King, Dexter King, and Martin Luther King III were still in disagreement about that deal).

To get around the rights issue, DuVernay tried to mimic the style of King’s words, and recreate the speeches in a way that captured their spirit and essence. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, DuVernay explains her process:

GROSS: So you were in the position of having to be Martin Luther King’s speechwriter.

DUVERNAY: (Laughter) Yes, the unfortunate position… I was like I don’t want to do it, but, you know, it had to be done. And, you know, I would hike and I would listen to King’s speeches in my earphones and really just try to—more than the cadence, which, yes, you know, there are couple tricks that he did to really rile people up. He spoke in triplet a lot. He loved to paint pictures in a certain way, but it was really about the content of what he was saying back to this idea of truth and fact.

I couldn’t use the facts of the speech. I couldn’t use the words. So I had to try to find the truth of what he was saying. And I would ask myself, what is he saying here? What is the idea he’s trying to get across? At the end of our film, you know, I had to rewrite this radical idea that he had. This amazing idea that he had picked up on from another scholar that racism is a lie that’s been told to white people to divert their attention from the challenges in their own life by the powers that be, that rich white men indoctrinate racism into poor white men to make them look at black people and not at the powerful white men, who might not be helping them as they should—a pretty radical idea….

That idea is big enough, bold enough, interesting enough, complex enough, to be shared and it should be shared. And we just have to find another way to say it ’cause we can’t afford those speeches. And we don’t have the rights to those speeches. You know, but the idea itself should be heard. And so that was how we approached it and that’s how I broke it down. I’d listen to the speech, I’d try to educate myself, challenge myself to understand what he was telling me, what he was telling us and then I just tried to tell that in a different way.

It appears that DuVernay has changed the words enough to argue that Selma constitutes “fair use,” but the legal concerns over King’s words have a history.

Clarence Jones, who served as a personal advisor, attorney and speech writer for King, says when he wrote his book, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation, he was told by attorneys for King, Inc., that if he wanted to use the full speech in the book, he could for $20,000.

A stunned Jones said, “If it wasn’t for me copyrighting that speech, the King children wouldn’t today own their biggest moneymaker.”

His small publisher was afraid of getting sued by King, Inc., so Jones indemnified them from any costs associated with a lawsuit and dared lawyers for the King children to sue him.

They never did.

I’m assuming that Oprah’s Harpo Films has good lawyers in the event that the King estate decides to challenge the film’s language. But what is Spielberg planning to do with the speech film rights? There are indications that he’s planning a film that shows how King was inspired by Ghandi, or perhaps a biopic that’s the “definitive film on his life and legacy.”


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.