Fifty-years after his assassination and on what would have been his 89th birthday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (MPAA) honored the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The NMAAHC and The Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) held a screening of the Academy Award-nominated film King: A Film Record … Montgomery to Memphis in 35mm archival print.
The four-hour long documentary had only been screened once previously on March 20, 1970, just two years after the icon was stolen from the world. Throughout his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strength, perseverance, and wisdom made him a giant. In the decades after his death, he’s become an idol – in many ways Dr. King has become almost mythical. King: A Film Record is the closest most of us will ever get to the man himself. Directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film is made up solely of archival footage and short vignettes spoken by some of his closest friends and allies including Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, and James Earl Jones. Through footage of the period, King’s speeches, marches, and sermons, the audience is drawn into and mesmerized by a man who so steadfastly believed in non-violence and in reshaping a very broken America.
The film’s lead-in was an introduction from the iconic and regal Harry Belafonte in partnership with the MPAA. The 90-year-old activist spoke all these years later of his first time meeting the young Reverend. The King of Calypso recalled the uncertainty that he heard and saw from the man who seemed surer than anyone that Black people could and would overcome Jim Crow and stifling segregation. Though Dr. King seemed determined to the public, at 26-year-old, he felt unprepared to take on the role as the moral compass of an entire people.
Propelled by Rosa Parks’ arrest to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott which took place from late 1955 to 1956, Dr. King and his comrades were determined to strike down Jim Crow and segregationist laws. However, what he nor Belafonte would anticipate was King’s towering legacy that would not only shift opportunities for Black Americans in a way that hadn’t been done since the Reconstruction era but also how he would inspire generations across the globe including our current Black Lives Matter movement. Though he may have felt unsure, Dr. King also predicted our current predicament.
The film opens with Rev. King’s pleas for peace and non-violence juxtaposed against Stokely Carmichael and the members of the Black Panther Party’s call to arms. The fervor is palpable on both ends, and it’s also clear why the Black Panther Party’s messages were enticing. However, what Dr. King foresaw was that more radically violent acts of protest would enable white racists and moderates to box Black protesters in with the Ku Klux Klan. Something the BLM is constantly rallying against today.
King: A Film Record moves through the Bus Boycott to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. The film highlights the freedom rides and moves eventually to Memphis were King drew his last breath. Footage shows a young and electrifying but increasingly weary man who pressed forward despite harassment, assaults and everything in between to give a race of people that he loved so much a fighting chance. As the audience sat in the National Museum of African American History which is aptly located on 14th and Constitution in Washington, DC. watching King and his fellow protestors get, brutalized, hosed down, bitten with dogs and everything in between, his will to endure was explicit.
In many ways, as we look at the current climate of our country, the reinvigoration of protests, racial violence, and our sorry excuse for a president we have in fact returned to a time when the country once again rests its foot square on the necks of people of color. Though we can’t breathe now, history and films like King: A Film Record reminds us to look to the past and to people like Dr. King for the blueprint on how to create a better future.
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Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami