EXCLUSIVE: Lee Daniels and Hugh Jackman failed to get a civil rights picture off the ground when their passion project “Selma” fell apart two years ago. But the pair are taking another crack at that subject, exploring the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination with a new film that takes an unconventional view of King’s murder.
Daniels will direct and Jackman will star in “Orders to Kill,” a story that aims to tell an alternative version of the King shooting, according to a person familiar with the project who was not authorized to talk about it publicly. Millennium Films will produce and finance the film, which is currently being shopped around to distributors in Hollywood. A Millennium spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The film will tell the story of William Pepper (Jackman), a controversial attorney and activist who for decades has argued that convicted killer James Earl Ray, who recanted his confession and died arguing his innocence, didn’t shoot MLK. [Update, August 9, 6:00 am: A spokeswoman at Jackman’s publicist’s office denied the actor’s involvement. A person familiar with the project says Jackman is attached, and a package that has been circulated to Hollywood distributors by Millennium features Jackman’s name prominently at the top.]
The picture will follow Pepper over the years as he wages a one-man campaign, interviewing witnesses and building support for his theory that other interests, including those from the U.S. government, were behind the 1968 Memphis killing. (In a nutshell, Pepper, who is still alive, argues that government interests wanted King dead because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.) It will be based on Pepper’s own book, which has been adapted for the screen by Hollywood screenwriter Hanna Weg.
The movie has echoes of “JFK,” Oliver Stone’s film from 20 years ago that also argued for a broad conspiracy behind the assassination of a 1960s icon. Though controversial, the film was a huge hit and won two Oscars.
Ray has long been viewed as the killer by authorities and much of the public, though Pepper has the support of Martin Luther King Jr.'s son Dexter King, who came to believe the bullet was fired by a Memphis police officer. A 1999 wrongful-death lawsuit against a man and unknown co-conspirators filed by the Kings and argued by Pepper found in favor of the plaintiff. The trial will be the climactic section of the film, according to the person familiar with the project.
“Orders” is a second chance of sorts for Daniels and Jackman, who in 2010 got together for the development project “Selma,” about the famous Alabama civil-rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. In that project, Jackman was to play a racist sheriff who led the charge against King. The film was scrapped after it hit financing troubles.
Daniels, most famous for his Oscar-winning “Precious” from 2009 (also produced by Millennium), recently made a period murder mystery, the polarizing pic "The Paperboy," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s going historical with the upcoming “The Butler,” about a man who served more than a half-dozen presidents.
“Orders” would continue a turn to period pieces for Jackman, who will be seen in this December’s “Les Miserables.”
Follow Steven Zeitchik on Twitter at @ZeitchikLAT.