#417) King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
Directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (uncredited)
Class of 1999
Here’s a trailer from the film’s BluRay release
Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Era are enormously complex, especially considering how much of my education on the subjects is oversimplified to the point of inaccuracy. As always, I am only commenting on what is being presented in this film, and how it’s being presented. You owe it to yourself to learn more and go beyond what you think you know about this man and his times.
The Plot: As the title suggests, “King” chronicles the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christian minister and the face of the Civil Rights Movement. Culled from hundreds of hours of film and television footage, we follow Dr. King from his first public exposure leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, to his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, to his tragic assassination during the Memphis Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Also featured are brief filmed sequences from such stars as Paul Newman, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, and Burt Lancaster.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film’s production and Dr. King’s media savvy, calling him “an astute judge of the media” and someone who knew “how to exploit his celebrity to further his cause.”
But Does It Really?: I’ve spent my entire life learning about Martin Luther King as a lionized martyr who preached peace and racial unity, so it’s refreshing to see a movie that treats him as a human with a strong moral backbone. While not an all-encompassing profile of the man, “King” provides the history of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s influence on his times. The film still paints King in a positive light (no allegations of plagiarism or extra-marital affairs here), but helps give a sense of the conservative ‘50s giving way to the optimistic early ‘60s before turning into the politically unstable late ‘60s. “King” is an era’s tribute to one of its finest, and its NFR inclusion is welcomed.
Shout Outs: Look quickly during the Memphis march for a marquee advertising “The Graduate”.
Everybody Gets One: Ely Landau was a TV producer who, by the mid-1960s, had pivoted to producing films based on plays, most notably 1962’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Following Dr. King’s assassination, Landau planned a short film tribute, but enough material was found to create a feature length film. Of the film’s celebrity appearances, this is the only NFR appearance for Oscar winner/humanitarian Joanne Woodward. Here, Ms. Woodward briefly comments on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which we’ll cover in more detail with Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Subject matter aside, the main giveaway that this is the late ‘60s is an appearance by Clarence Williams III, aka Linc from “The Mod Squad”.
Seriously, Oscars?: “King” played in theaters across the country one night only: March 24th 1970. In cooperation with the National Association of Theatre Owners of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, all proceeds from the evening went to The Martin Luther King Jr. Special Fund. Whether or not the film played additional dates in Los Angeles is unknown, but regardless, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. The Oscars opted to vote for something a little closer to the zeitgeist, and gave the prize to “Woodstock”.
- To the best of my knowledge, the archival footage was assembled by Ely Landau and co-producer Richard Kaplan. Sidney Lumet & Joseph Mankiewicz filmed the celebrity interstitials, though I couldn’t find anything that confirms who shot what.
- The film opens with a montage of King speaking publically about non-violence, juxtaposed with other civil rights activists preaching violence. As much as we’d like to focus on the peaceful protests, it’s important to see the anger of the era as well.
- The first of the celebrity appearances is singer/activist Harry Belafonte, also seen in news footage alongside Dr. King at several events. As of this writing, Harry Belafonte is still going strong at age 92! He was in “BlacKkKlansman”!
- My one complaint about the film in general is that we don’t really get to know Martin Luther King beyond his public persona. His speeches are still powerful and stirring over 60 years later, but who is the man behind the speeches? Much like “The Times of Harvey Milk”, this film focuses more on the era and the movement than the person at its center.
- Those who remember Charlton Heston’s NRA “cold dead hands” brand of politics may be surprised to see him in this movie. In his younger days Heston was a vocal Civil Rights activist, and even participated in the March on Washington. Like many disenchanted liberals of the early ‘70s, Heston pivoted towards neoconservatism and the Republican Party.
- The great thing about having one of the world’s greatest orators at your church: no problem filling up that collection plate.
- With the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and the Albany movement of 1961, King demonstrates an important point of protesting in America: the most effective form of protest involves the other side losing money, hence why boycotting buses and segregated businesses was ultimately successful.
- The Birmingham campaign of 1963 is perhaps best remembered for the police’s use of high-pressure hoses and dogs on the African-American protesters. It’s unsettling to watch, but an important viewing nonetheless.
- Longtime readers will note that this is the second film I’ve covered on the list that documents The March on Washington, but it helps that this one actually has the audio for “I Have a Dream” (thanks, King estate!) Seeing the march within this film’s context highlights this event as the apex of King’s career. Also, listen for Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome”, bumping up Joan’s NFR filmography to 3 ½!
- The Selma to Montgomery march of 1964 is a reminder that I still need to get around to watching the Ava DuVernay movie. Like Washington, the Selma march is loaded with celebrities, including a reunion of comedy duo Nichols & May.
- Jesse Jackson was involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966? Who isn’t in this movie?
- The thing that surprised me most was how aware King was of his impending death. The one off-the-cuff interview we get in this film is King discussing the gunshots fired near him in Chicago, and how much that put him in touch with his own mortality.
- Martin Luther King is one of the rare people who got to speak at their own funeral. At Coretta Scott King’s request, a recording of Dr. King’s final sermon was played at his funeral. Appropriately enough, his “Drum Major Instinct” speech was about how he wished to be remembered after his death. This audio is followed by footage of his funeral procession, accompanied by Nina Simone’s rendition of “Why?”
- “King” played its one night screening, and besides an occasional TV broadcast, more or less disappeared. In 2010, producer Richard Kaplan commissioned a restoration of “King” using his own personal film elements, and released the film on DVD. Thank god I waited until the digital streaming era before attempting this blog.
- As for the man himself, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century; his countless honors include several civil rights foundations, streets in over 900 American cities, and even a Federal holiday! And with any luck, we’ll see him and Harriet Tubman on our currency in the near future.