King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

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Conceived and produced by Ely Landau; music supervisor Coleridge-Taylor Perkison; guest appearances filmed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. DVD, B&W, 181 min., 1970. A KINO Classics release

Before Martin Luther King was a U2 anthem, a monument on the Washington Mall, and a national holiday, he was a political activist of some controversy. After the “shots rang out from the Memphis sky” (as Bono wailed), the flesh-and-blood civil rights leader hardened into myth, a secular saint beyond defacing or debunking. A few revisionist works of scholarship have tried to chip away at the man in marble, but hagiography remains the dominant posture and adoration the default mode. On the third week of January, presidents murmur prayerful nostrums and news anchors unspool the money sound byte from the “I Have a Dream” speech. For anyone who remembers American life before the civil rights revolution King spearheaded, and for which he was martyred, the ritual idolatry seems a fair trade-off.

Resurrected and spruced up by KINO Classics and the Library of Congress and packed with invaluable footage of a momentous pilgrimage, his and ours, producer-director Ely Landau’s nearly three-hour documentary offers a chance to see the legend in embryo, just two years after the assassination, when the man was still a vibrant memory and the wound was still raw. King is not a biopic proper—there are no reminiscences from childhood friends, no yearbook pictures, and no clips of King on Meet the Pressor Face the Nation, where cynical reporters treated him as just another politico with an agenda. Rather it is a fast-moving photoplay beginning when King appears as the face—and more especially the voice—of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ending on a hotel balcony in Memphis thirteen years later. Along the way, the film offers a window not only into the audio-visual charisma of King in his prime (he would never be known in his nonprime) but into how Hollywood orbits around a star from a different galaxy—trailing in his wake, propelling him forward.

True to its billing, King is a filmed record, with only a few frames of kinescope or videotape edited into the stream of grainy, off-kilter, and poorly lit 16mm and 35mm newsreel footage. Funny how newsreel photography from the Thirties—taken with stationary, tripod-mounted cameras from Fox Movietone and the like—looks sharper, better focused, and more immediate than the news film of the late-Fifties and early Sixties, taken on the run by cameramen clutching hand-held Eyemos and Bell and Howells. Viewed through the lens of the digital age, the B&W, cinéma-vérité-style celluloid already seems the residue of a dead medium, making the images look more remote and antique than they actually are. Yet, the camerawork suits the occasion: on location, in the streets, and literally on the march.

A brief, yin-yang prologue conjures the racial polarities of the decade just ended: unhinged black power radicals spouting venom crosscut with clips of King calmly rejecting the violence and reverse-image racism of the firebrands. Newly Afro-ed and dashiki-ed, they are young, angry, and threatening; he is mature, serene, and conciliatory. “We have a power that cannot be found in Molotov cocktails,” he declares in that clear-as-a-bell voice. A prediegetic crawl then defines the terms of the upcoming attraction: “This motion picture documents the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1955 to 1968. It does not purport to cover all the incidents of that period. The events have been chosen for their historical importance and for the impact they have had on our lives.” As a kind of postscript, a word about the archival ethos explains: “Because of their authenticity, certain sequences have been used in spite of defects in technical quality.” Of course, the defects are the proofs of authenticity, the watermarks of cinematic reality.

Landau dispensed with voice-over narration and a wraparound musical score, two conventions of documentary at the time, taking his cues from Emile de Antonio’s landmark compilation film Point of Order! (1963), a ninety-miniute précis of the 188 hours of kinescope footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. (De Antonio considered the March of Time- style Voice of God narration “fascistic.”) Unfortunately, however, the flow of King’s journey is interrupted by direct-address hectoring by Hollywood personalities who pop up incessantly in a series of confrontational interludes that serve as act breaks and sledgehammer-to-the-forehead exhortations. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet, the minilectures feature the likes of Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, and James Earl Jones eyeing the spectator accusingly while reciting passages from Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Ernest Hemingway. (I’ll wager the austere presentations filmed against a stark black background were shot by Lumet and the more symbolic stagings—Charlton Heston bracketed by marble columns and American flags—were shot by Mankiewicz.)

Divided into two parts, originally broken up with a midpoint intermission, the passion play unfolds chronologically with set pieces as well known now as the stations of the cross: the early days in Alabama, as point man for the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the campaign to integrate public facilities in Birmingham in the early 1960s; and the epochal, majestic March on Washington comprise the first section. In Part II, the three Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965 find the movement with the dogs at its throat but the wind at its back; legislative if not attitudinal victories are achieved with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; King enters a new racist neighborhood in a harrowing march through the very mean streets of Chicago during the campaign for open housing in the summer of 1966, and, in the inevitable last act, the missionary embarks on the fateful trip to Memphis in 1968 in support of a sanitation workers strike.

Looking back—or for viewers looking on for the first time—the trek through the nation’s back alleys can only be bracing. In an age in which the charge of racism is spat out mainly for rhetorical effect, it is instructive to see and hear the real thing up close and in the face, to remember a time when “nigger” was spoken not as a slur but as casual vernacular; to take in a montage of colored-designated waiting rooms, water fountains, and balconies; and to see again racist troglodytes like Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who, as people said at the time, was a bigot straight out of Central Casting. “Bring that blind nigger over here,” says a Birmingham cop of Al Hibbler, when the jazz singer was protesting in front of the city’s Trailways Bus Station in 1963. Another glimpse into indigenous Southern folkways occurs when Selma Sheriff Jim Clark viciously punches out a protester, whether oblivious to, or playing to, or not giving a damn about, the camera. Lest viewers north of the Mason Dixon line begin to feel too smug, the rawest expression of vox populi hatred is in Chicago, where frothing mobs shout invective and wave swastikas, a display of venom which seems to rattle King more than the unleashing of German shepherds and firehoses in Birmingham and Selma.

Only a few lighter moments break up the earnest sermonizing, testifying, and marching. On the eve of the march on the Montgomery State House, an ensemble of high-spirited entertainers perform before a open-air mike: Harry Belafante sings “Kingston Girl,” Peter, Paul, and Mary belt out “The Times They Are a Changin’,” and comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May do a routine in which Governor George Wallace dictates a message to a Western Union telegram operator. (“Can you spell ‘governor’?” asks Elaine. “No,” deadpans Mike.) Later, in church in Chicago, King pauses before approaching the pulpit and breaks into a grin when the on-fire gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lifts off with “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

For all the power of the images, though, it is the sound of King’s voice that has the most visceral impact on the senses. He was a vocal virtuoso, of course, his baritone a pitch-perfect instrument to ring out the music of the gospel preacher. An audio recording of King made on December 5, 1955, just before the cameras fixated on to him, opens the symphony, the words scrolling by on a black screen, with nothing to detract from the cadences of the oratory. The ubiquity of the “I Have a Dream” speech has drowned out hundreds of other rousing declamations King made at a lectern or pulpit. King remedies the imbalance with extended excerpts from the lesser-known back catalogue. No speech is more moving—and eerily prescient—than the one given the night before his assassination, known to history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and played on audio tape at his funeral—where, in effect, he gives his own eulogy. The two disembodied voices—before Montgomery, after Memphis—serve as aural bookends for the documentary. All the speeches, sermons really, remind a generation schooled on the secularization of King’s civil rights mission that his vision was deeply infused by the New Testament, the safe berth for African Americans to rebuke a nominally Christian America since the days of the antebellum slave narrative

But if King’s voice always soars, the documentary sags in its second part—not unlike Henry Hampton’s two-part Eyes on the Prize (1993) series, and for similar reasons.The lift and momentum of the campaign against Jim Crow has a clear trajectory and moral clarity that the post-1965 missions lack. As King moves to embrace the antiwar movement and broader themes of economic justice, the destinations are less clear, the motion-picture imagery less compelling. With no Bull Connor or Jim Clark to personify the evil, the preacher has no Satan to wrestle with.

King is what it is, but the single-minded wall-to-wall focus on King footage makes no room for context or criticism: no journalistic cross-examination, no inkling that by the end of his life King was denigrated as an Uncle Tom, and no dissent that might make the viewer question the infallibility of the featured attraction. Historians of the civil rights movement will detect gaps and strategic omissions. As Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and the accompanying PBS documentary make clear, King embraced the bus-riding Freedom Riders only with reluctance.

In its time, King was a major motion-picture event, released as a single-day screening and something of a coast-to-coast roadshow attraction. The jacket copy of the DVD says the film debuted on March 20, 1970, but the actual date was March 24, 1970, when it played in over five hundred theaters (at five dollars a head, the admission fee being tax deductible) and grossed more than $2,000,000, with all proceeds going to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Special Fund. All went smoothly, Variety reported nonchalantly, “except for an occasional bomb scare.”

To make the film happen and then pull off its ambitious exhibition strategy, producer Landau received unprecedented cooperation from members of the film industry who were only too glad to lend their talents to so gold-plated a project and donate the costs of production, distribution, and exhibition, and, presumably, waive copyright. Underscoring the special event status of the Hollywood offering, the second part of King opens with a self-congratulatory crawl:

“This Evening in Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. has been made possible by the National Association of Theatre Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America whose members have given up their income from the motion picture performance originally scheduled for tonight in order that all proceeds from the ticket sales for this event may go to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Special Fund. Particular thanks are rendered to the owner of this theatre for his support of this gesture and for his contribution of this fully-staffed theater.”

“It was the greatest era of social change in America’s history,” Landau said in 1970. “There has been no man to replace Dr. King and there has been no better idea than his to muster the forces of non-violent protest in this country. And in this light, there has never been such a collaboration of the entire communications industry to honor the memory of one man.” (Landau’s generosity with credit was not returned in kind; at the Academy Awards ceremony that year emcee, Bob Hope lauded the industry for its singular achievement—without mentioning Landau, the guy who put his blood, sweat, and tears into the project for two years.)

Given that the King estate is as protective as Walt Disney about infringements on its copyright, the historical value and pedagogical usefulness of the documentary is self-evident. Teachers will savor sequences of King reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and reciting the full “I Have Dream, Speech” at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on March 7, 1963, here unspooled in its entirety and not just in snippets (though, alas, the sequence suffers from overediting with needless cutaways to the crowd and inserts of statuary of the Founding Fathers).

Invaluable as the package is, however, it could well have used a pop-up option to identify precise dates, locations, and personalities for the events that flash by and citations for the literary quotations read in the direct-address sequences. The actors who deplane for the March on Washington—and indeed those who speak in directed-address inserts—will not be readily identifiable to viewers under thirty, certainly not to undergraduates or high-school students (that’s Clarence Williams III, kids—a hot commodity at the time for his role as Linc on The Mod Squad.) On video, at least, King’s real resurrection awaits a comprehensive Blu-ray edition—with companion booklet, commentary, and pop-up captions.

To purchase King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis, click here.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on film, most recently, of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine