Watched on the 52nd anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. This is an expanded version of my Letterboxd review from April 4, 2020.
This tends to be my favorite kind of documentary, letting archival footage speak for itself without narration or talking head interviews. This footage certainly does speak for itself — and my God, does it speak. We’ve all seen photos and clips of activities in the Civil Rights era, especially Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. But seeing so many of them, presented chronologically as they unfold, imbues them with an all new power.
Parts of King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis are as hard to watch and unsettling as something like Schindler’s List — maybe even moreso, because we’re seeing documentary footage of real people abused and degraded, caught in the moment. I was moved to tears several times, and that’s without a swelling score or expert cinematography or any manipulation at all, really, from the filmmakers. Brief poetry readings from celebrities like James Earl Jones and Joanne Woodward break up the footage; these might have been necessary to make this an “event” film in 1970, but I could take or leave them. It’s the footage of the movement itself that so masterfully transports us right into the heart of some of the 20th century’s most significant and heartbreaking moments.
What King makes clear is how extraordinary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was as not just a leader and orator but as a strategist; he had an uncanny ability to speak to Black Americans and allies in this movement, of course, but also a knack for framing how this would play to the largely white audience watching across America on television. I’m sure he had private moments of doubt, maybe even despair, but that’s not what America saw back then and it’s not what we see in the documentary now. I’d like to know more about Dr. King personally, but this film is about King’s legacy — more about the movement than the man. (There is one moment of levity I really enjoyed, however, as Dr. King celebrates his birthday, giving us a glimpse of the legend in looser moments.)
King covers events we know well from text books and old news footage. It makes this history shocking again. At the time of its release, less than two years after his assassination, these were still wide-open wounds — but the fact that King resonates so much 50 years later means they have not adequately healed. It’s incredible that this 50 year old documentary could be one of the most immediate, urgent viewing experiences I’ve had recently.
King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis is not what I thought it would be. I guess I expected the history books I read in elementary school put in motion. Dr. King tends to be deified, which in some ways feels wrong — he was a human being — and in some ways feels right — he was one of the most astonishing human beings in our nation’s history. Perhaps I expected a documentary made in 1970 to be too fresh, too recent to have real perspective on the Civil Rights movement. I was dead wrong. King is as searing and clear-eyed as documentaries come; the anger and sorrow that resonate through it could only be captured in such close proximity to these events. I feel stupid for expecting a genteel history lesson instead of a potent powder keg, brimming with rage at the injustice and inhumanity on the flip side of these victories. Growing up white in the suburbs, I was led to believe that the Civil Rights movement had a happy ending. (Wrong on both counts: “happy” and “ending.”) Dr. King’s assassination was a tragic cost, but in a history book, to a child, this untimely end to a great life feels as remote as Abraham Lincoln’s — inevitable, even.
King corrects this misconception, spanning from 1955 to 1968, condensing but approximating the experience of watching the entire Civil Rights movement play out in the news. It does not play like history, but as a forward-moving narrative. For the first time, I was able to imagine the Civil Rights movement as something that was, at one point, happening, rather than just something that happened.
It may seem trite (and awfully white) to invoke Martin Luther King, Jr. right now, but King has been going around and around in my head these past few days with the swelling response to Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, and it’s not because I have any interest in comparing King’s protest methodology to what’s happening today. In fact, what’s stuck with me most is not even King himself, but the footage of his followers — the Black Americans who faced very real consequences in pursuit of equality, in a world that easily justified beating, imprisoning, and killing them for the assertion that they deserved the same rights afforded to a white man.
In the 1960s, of course, no one had cell phone cameras. Thousands of injustices were never caught on film. But the footage of Black Americans being degraded and attacked by police, politicians, and fellow citizens in King is as brutal and horrifying as any video we’re seeing on social media of the same thing today. King is its own story; what’s happening now is its own story; neither is particularly well served by connecting the dots while it’s all still in motion. But I will say that King haunts me and made this history real for me in a way that it wasn’t before, and I’m grateful for the context it gave me as we reach another critical moment in history for Black Americans.
King is currently streaming on Hoopla or available for a 99 cent rental on iTunes.
‘King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis’