DreamWorks plans the first big-screen portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, the studio announced Tuesday, but two of King's children immediately threatened legal action because the film deal was brokered without their blessing.
DreamWorks touted the project in a press release as the first theatrical motion picture authorized by the estate using King's intellectual property, including copyrighted speeches and other works, as the basis for the film. Steven Spielberg was listed as a co-producer. The only other film about King that made it to theaters was a documentary that was shown for one day in 1970.
Dexter King, one of the late civil rights leader's sons, said in a press release that he hoped the movie would "be the definitive film" on his father's legacy. Two other King siblings — Bernice King and Martin Luther King III — said they had no input in the deal.
Dexter is the chairman and chief executive officer of King, Inc.
"This is a deal that Mr. Spielberg and his people ... have entered into believing that they have the blessing of The King Estate. They don't have the blessings of Bernice and Martin King," Bernice King told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Tuesday after finding out about the deal in an e-mail from Dexter King.
A spokesman for Dexter King did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.
The three siblings have been involved in several legal disputes regarding their parents' intellectual property in the past year. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III have accused their brother of tarnishing their parents' legacy with his business decisions, and say he has been operating The King Estate for years without their input.
Martin Luther King III said the matter was typical of an ongoing pattern of exclusion.
"It's not that we are against a film," he said. "It's very interesting to me that a company would engage in a business arrangement knowing that there's severe controversy around many issues pertaining to the estate of Martin Luther King Jr."
DreamWorks spokeswoman Kristin Stark declined to say how much the deal is worth. It is not clear when the movie might be made. Stark said she did not believe the siblings' legal differences would affect the project.
Although several movies about King's life have been televised, the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner has only been on the silver screen once. The documentary "King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis" was shown once in theaters on March 24, 1970, and featured commentary from Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Ruby Dee, among others.
Madison Jones, a longtime friend of Dexter King who has handled intellectual property issues for the estate for several years, is also listed as a producer.
Bernice King said Jones, who is also known as "Phil," does not represent her and Martin.
"He has always represented Dexter," she said. "This is about Dexter and Phil and their empire."
In March, Dexter King brokered a deal with EMI Music Publishing for his father's words and image. Last month, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III took issue with an $800,000 licensing deal their brother struck with the foundation tasked with building a memorial to their father on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The siblings still haven't settled three lawsuits involving their parents' estates, including one attempting to force Dexter King to open the books of their father's estate. Another would determine who should control Coretta Scott King's personal items — some of which were at the center of a $1.4 million book deal about their mother's life that fell apart last year.