Due to a variety of legal and artistic challenges, motion picture dramas about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have failed to get off the ground in recent years, despite the interest of such accomplished filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass.
Maybe another reason King movie projects stall is that the real Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remains very much a "star." Who needs an actor's re-creation when the authentic King survives in a wealth of audio and visual recordings?
We don't know what Abraham Lincoln moved or sounded like, so we find Daniel Day-Lewis' impersonation satisfying, even uncanny. But could any performer reproduce without cheapening King's bravura oratory? Or evoke the aura of reassuring, righteous conviction that seemed to accompany the man once introduced by labor organizer A. Philip Randolph as "the moral leader of our nation"?
King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, while the national holiday in his honor is observed on the third Monday of his birth month. The dates provide a rationale for numerous celebrations of King's life and legacy, including the return of two key documentaries, the Memphis-made "At the River I Stand" (1993), created by three University of Memphis faculty members, and the epic "King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis" (1970), which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award. (It lost to "Woodstock.")
Constructed largely from intimate, sometimes raw news footage, the 185-minute "King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis" originally screened in movie theaters nationwide as a one-time-only event — complete with intermission and the then-premium ticket price of $5 — on March 24, 1970.
For most of the decades since, however, the film has been available only in an edited 103-minute version that was missing not only much of the newsreel footage but most of the "dramatic readings" of texts and poems about liberty, race and other topics that feature such celebrities as Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Paul Newman, shot against stark backdrops that suggest blackbox theater.
Directed by Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men") and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("All About Eve"), these interludes bridge the film's major chapters, which cover King's career from 1955, when he helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, to 1968, when he was killed by an assassin's bullet in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel (now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum).
In 1999, "From Montgomery to Memphis" was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which works to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films." The movie was restored to its original length by the LOC, and last week this version was released on DVD for the first time in a two-disc set from the Kino Classics imprint of Kino Lorber, a label known for a catalog of film masterpieces by Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and others. (The DVD is available at kinolorber.com, Amazon.com and most other similar sites.)
"We acquired this documentary ... due to its historical relevance," said Elizabeth Sheldon, vice president of New York-based Kino. "It is the 50th anniversary of King's 'I Have a Dream' speech and the March on Washington, and Kino Lorber wanted to recognize and honor these events."
Produced by Richard Kaplan and Ely Landau, "From Montgomery to Memphis" follows King's rise "from regional activist to world-renowned leader of the civil rights movement," according to Kino. With no narration and very little explanatory text, the movie lets the images and characters — including various anti-integration extremists and "black power" advocates, as well as more moderate civil rights leaders — speak for themselves.
"The best thing for King to do is to get out of Alabama as quickly as he can because he's a menace," says Alabama Gov. John Patterson, predecessor to the equally hostile George Wallace. Birmingham's infamous Eugene "Bull" Connor, holder of the ironic title of Commissioner of Public Safety, is also contemptuous. He belittles the federal support of desegregation by making fun of "those Kennedys up there in Washington, that little ol' Bobby Socks and his brother, the president."
But it is King — presented as a healer who seems almost aware of his approaching martyrdom, like Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" — who dominates. The film presents lengthy excerpts and sometimes even unedited speeches, in Montgomery, Birmingham, Chicago, Washington, Memphis. A black power advocate advises a crowd of listeners to "get you some guns," but King promotes what he calls "soul force," a "power that cannot be found in Molotov cocktails. ... Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns."
King is both candid and conciliatory. "It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans," King says. But he also makes a frequent point of praising white supporters, and he never denigrates the U.S.
That "great glory" is put into practice in "At the River I Stand," which returns to national television this week for the first time since its original airings on PBS, in April 1993 and January 1994.
The documentary aired Monday night on STARZB (Starz in Black), a cable television network. It repeats on STARZB at 7:15 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Feb. 10 and 8:45 p.m. Feb. 13.
Boiled down to 58 minutes from close to 150 hours of footage shot and collected over four years, the film was created by University of Memphis faculty members and filmmakers David Appleby, Allison Graham and Steven John Ross. (Full disclosure: The movie's title was borrowed from a book about King and the sanitation strike written by my mother, Joan Turner Beifuss.)
Although the movie necessarily deals with King and his April 4 assassination, the focus is on the 1,300 city sanitation workers who went on strike in early 1968. King came to Memphis to support their efforts, making the event "not just a strike but one of the last gasps of nonviolence in the civil rights movement," Appleby said.
After its initial broadcast, "At the River I Stand" was nominated for an Emmy and an Image Award from the NAACP, and it earned the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians for best historical film of its year. It remains a powerful film and a valuable history lesson (it should especially benefit younger Memphians), and it will bring back memories — good and bad — for those who remember the era.