The civil rights activist and lawyer William F. Pepper, who has long contended that James Earl Ray did not shoot Martin Luther King, will be portrayed by Hugh Jackman in a conspiracy theory thriller about the assassination. “Orders to Kill,” reports the Los Angeles Times, will be directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”).
In 2010, Jackman and Daniels attempted to launch a film called “Selma,” about the triumphant 54-mile march of non-violent demonstrators led by Dr. King from Selma to Montomery, in Alabama, from March 16 – 24, 1965. It followed the killing of the deacon and civil-rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper and two abortive marches earlier in the month, including that of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7.
The British actor David Oyelowo was lined up to play King. Jackman reportedly put on thirty pounds to play the racist Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark, whose men used cattle prods, guns, and clubs against Selma demonstrators. But despite backing from the Weinstein Company and the lining up of a stellar cast, Daniels could not finalize the $18 million budget and the project fell through.
Daniels’ film about King’s assassination, for which Millenium Pictures is currently seeking a distributor in Hollywood, has been adapted by screenwriter Hanna Weg from Pepper’s “Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King.” Published in 1998, the book was the culmination of 18 years of investigation by Pepper, who had befriended King and accompanied him during the organization of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign on Washington D.C. and the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis.
Initially Pepper believed that Ray was responsible for King’s murder in Memphis on April 4, 1968, but on meeting him he was convinced otherwise.
“What convinces Pepper of the convicted killer’s innocence is Ray’s rendition of the months leading up to the assassination and the obvious discrepancies between his story and the government’s official story,” Helyn Trickey wrote in her review of the book for CNN. “Pepper’s account of the months Ray spent in limbo, traveling across the country at the direction of a shadowy figure dubbed Raul, is reminiscent of film noir movies where the lead is caught in a web of deceit beyond his comprehension.
“Ray believed, according to Pepper, that he was helping to run firearms across the Canadian and Mexican borders in exchange for legitimate traveling papers. Instead, Pepper contends, Ray was handpicked to take the fall in a larger-than-life plan to assassinate King.”
Pepper, who is now 74, believes that government interests wanted King killed because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He is supported by Dexter King, who believes his father was assassinated by a Memphis police officer.
Following Ray's death in 1998, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful death lawsuit, "King family vs. Loyd Jowers and other unknown co-conspirators.” Jowers ran a restaurant near the Lorraine Motel where King was shot and supposedly received and hid the murder weapon.
Pepper produced over 70 witnesses during the month-long trial. Jowers, who testified by deposition, alleged that Ray was a fall guy uninvolved in the assassination, and that Earl Clark, a Memphis police marksman, fired the shot to the cheek that killed King. On December 8, 1999, the Memphis jury found Jowers responsible and that the conspiracy involved "governmental agencies." Clark had died in 1987; Jowers, who apparently wished to unburden his conscience, died in 2000.
The Los Angeles Times notes that the trial will climax “Orders to Kill,” which, even before it starts filming, is earning narrative comparisons with Oliver Stone’s factually discredited Kennedy assassination conspiracytheory film, “JFK” (1991). Daniels’ movie is being positioned as an alternative version of the events surrounding King’s death.