It looks like Paul Greengrass’s plans to direct Memphis, a movie based on the sanitation workers’ strike Martin Luther King, Jr. was supporting when he was assassinated, are on hold so he can jump on the Navy SEAL bandwagon and helm a picture about Captain Richard Phillips and the Maersk Alabama. I’m glad that in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, the early movies taking advantage of a new appreciation for the SEALs have gone to thoughtful action directors like Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow.
But I’m sorry to see Memphis get pushed back. We have a preference in our entertainment for international concerns over domestic ones, for ass-kicking rather than organizing as a means to justice. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legend persists mostly because we focus on the work he did that doesn’t make us uncomfortable: we agree that segregation was rotten, but we’re uncomfortable with union organizing, so we focus on King’s work on the former rather than the latter. A movie that requires audiences to understand that King’s concerns with racial equality and economic justice sprung from the same well would be useful and powerful, and as commercially risky as asking audiences to relive the struggle for control of United 93 on Sept. 11. But the crack of a rifle that echoes down the ages apparently isn’t as exciting as a daring raid.