The Neverending Legacy of the Reverend

26 Sep 2013: King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (DVD, 1970, Ely Landau)

Though it feels familiar and rehashed just because so much of what it consists of has been often seen before (speeches, riots, songs), as a sustained whole it carries an additional and impressive weight to it. The force and passion of King’s words and delivery ring with a resonant righteousness still captivating no matter how many times they are heard, and to watch his ideas progress and develop into more dangerous territory is to witness the inexorability (commented on by one of the brief and interesting interludes of text recited by actors such as James Earl Jones and Paul Newman) of his eventual demise, especially as he seems to predict it shortly before it occurs. This sense of doom – a sort of dramatic irony – is shared with another recent movie, Fruitvale Station, and while each African-American protagonist is very different, both films have a fatalism to them that stirs up strong feelings of moral indignation. Both also, however, share the flaw that they don’t delve quite as deeply into their subjects as they might have: King essentially gives us the textbook version of the man, covering more what standard history dictates should be covered than what might give us a richer picture – his personal life, more of his private thoughts, more about his circumstances (especially regarding his assassination), and more of his less-popular speeches (especially on Vietnam). There are some great musical performances I’d never seen before – in particular by Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson – as well as ample footage of disturbing police brutality and street chaos, as exciting in its cinematographic capture as in the nature of the content, and this film is obviously a loving tribute, but it strikes me as leaving a little to be desired as far as context and learning (i.e. retaining and developing MLK’s thought) are concerned.

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