The idea of a new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic is exciting for a few reasons. For starters, while many considered the civil rights leader a troublemaker during his lifetime, an annual federal holiday ensures his name stays top-of-mind as one of the most iconic voices in American history. This annual remembrance gives new generations an opportunity to learn about King, a Black man whose advocacy elevated civil rights and whose strategy of engaging in non-violent direct action effectively challenged Jim Crow-era segregationist policies, exposing the cruel injustices Black Americans were subjected to.
Of course, creating a movie about King at a time when conservatives are trying to remove Black history figures from classrooms is controversial. Surely, children may have questions about America’s history of racial segregation after watching such a film. In creating this biopic, the question has arisen as to who owns Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, which is essential since he was known as a captivating public speaker. Currently, famed producer Steven Spielberg has the rights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, according to Forbes. Now that it has been announced that Chris Rock will likely be selected as the director for an upcoming biopic, it seems American audiences will get an opportunity to collectively hear King’s speeches once again.
While Chris Rock is a beloved comedian, he’s also courted controversy throughout his career. For instance, when Chris Rock hosted the 2022 Academy Awards, he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, comparing her short hair to that of Demi Moore’s character in the 1997 film G.I. Jane. Her estranged husband, Will Smith, responded by slapping him in front of a live audience. The controversy hung over Hollywood discourse for months.
While Rock has been able to move on career wise, perhaps a more concerning controversy occurred years earlier in Rock’s career. Many viewers felt insulted and caught off guard when Chris Rock allowed Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais to use the N-word, unchecked, in a 2011 clip from HBO’s unscripted talk show, Talking Funny. The whole affair—in which Rock laughed along and engaged with his White peers' use of the slur—could make one wonder if he takes racial relations serious enough to take on a task as mighty as directing a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. After all, King did not consider racism to be a laughing matter. And based on Rock’s background, it’s unclear if he could, or even wants to, clear the air on the situation all these years later.
The mark of a great comedian is a performer who can make people laugh, but also think. To Rock’s credit, his 2009 comedic documentary, Good Hair, presumably sought to elevate Black women who are often mocked for their natural hair texture and styles. But the film remains polarizing, with some critics calling the doc exploitative and others claiming Rock further shamed Black women. Pair that with Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hair and it seems he still has a lot to learn about what to say and what not to say. Often, Black comedians are praised for saying the outlandish—for having the guts to say things others wouldn’t. But they should also realize some things aren’t said for good reason. Certainly, Black comedians can be clever in their comedy without punching down or causing pain.
Rock once referred to wokeness as nothing more than selective outrage. It’s strange that a Black man who hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to see the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and ongoing efforts of today’s Black civil rights leaders would think he’s the right man to handle a biopic on such an iconic civil rights leader. Either Rock will surprise us, and take this position as director seriously, or he’s going to disappoint a lot of Black folks.
The irony of a White man (Spielberg) claiming rights to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches isn’t lost on me. And certainly, it feels good to know a Black man will be involved in making high-level decisions about the project; after all, this is a story that is important for Black Americans, who continue to fight for equal rights and justice. Rock capably depicts NAACP head Roy Wilkins in Netflix’s upcoming civil rights period piece, Rustin. But the question remains whether he’s the best person to join Spielberg in making a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic.
If Rock going to be involved in a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, he mustn’t allow his words to be cherry-picked, as conservatives often do. Rock should not hide the truth about King’s life and the racism he fought so valiantly against. While Will Smith’s slap kept Chris Rock’s name in the limelight in recent years, we must remember that not everyone Black is qualified to speak on Blackness. If you’re not going to take the issue of racial inequality seriously, then you may miss the mark, and leave out the nuance such discussions require. The jury is still out on whether Chris Rock is the right man for the job, and while many are rooting for him, others doubt, based on his past, that he will give this project the solemnity it calls for.