By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
Few Americans–presidents included–can claim the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Gandhi before him, King’s use of nonviolent protest gave him a power well beyond what a man of his social status could have expected. Like the Mahatma, he used that power to shed light on the brutality of the ruling class, only to be gunned down. As we head into a weekend celebrating the legacy of Dr. King, it’s worth taking the time to reconnect with the man himself, in this case via a well-assembled documentary that offers a firsthand account of his public life.
We know–or think we know–the King story. A young minister leads a bus boycott and becomes the de facto spokesperson for African-American civil rights. We’ve heard about his Dream. We’ve studied his methods. He has attained a larger-than-life status, like the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln.
King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis is whole-heartedly part of the effort to canonize Dr. King. You’ll find no revisionism, no COINTELPRO adultery stories, nothing to diminish the man’s greatness. Indeed, the point of this documentary, assembled by Sidney Lumet, is to remind the viewer just how important King was.
There are some celebrity talking heads–James Earl Jones and Paul Newman among them–to provide gap-bridging monologues between the meat of the film, which is comprised of unadorned footage of real events. The value of these cameos is debatable, but the value of the documentary footage is not. These scenes unspool like a political thriller, as peaceful protestors meet brutal police, sirens wailing and hoses gushing and children screaming. The immediacy of the violence, muffled by generations of context-free overexposure in lesser films, is as palpable here as it was on the evening news to viewers in the Sixties. This alone makes the film required viewing.
But my favorite parts of this movie lie in its small moments. The night before marchers from Selma arrive in Montgomery, we see Nina Simone sing “Mississippi Goddamn” and watch Mike Nichols and Elaine May eviscerate George Wallace with a comedy bit. We see Dr. King talking with friends about his fear of death, and we can recognize a bit of ourselves in the great man. Perhaps most tellingly, we see the frustration in King’s face after a terrifying march through the segregated suburbs of Chicago. The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but sometimes it sure does take its sweet time.
The film was initially created for a One Night Only theatrical fundraiser in 1970, then largely disappeared. It finally resurfaced in 2010, and this DVD is part of a preservation effort by the Library of Congress. The two-disc set has no special features, nothing extra. Even so, it is an important addition to your library, a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.