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Kino Classics' double DVD set of King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis is an entertaining documentary that hasn't been seen in its complete form for 42 years. The lengthy two-part show was telecast only once in March of 1970, and afterwards revived only in heavily edited versions. Restored by the Library of Congress from film elements retained by the Museum of Modern Art, the original three-hour cut is now fully intact again.
It is accurate to describe King: A Filmed Record as an essential historical resource. TV news sources tend to use the same bite-sized film clips of Martin Luther King's speeches, accompanied by the same library footage of Civil Rights violence. Much of this TV news material has been edited from preexisting docus, which were themselves edited from older preexisting docus. As much a prime-source document as a structured documentary, King contains several of its subject's most historical speeches at their full length. Instead of the usual image bites, we see comprehensive news camera coverage of important demonstrations and historical marches. Police attacks and later riot situations are shown in a broader context than that seen in TV news of the day.
The years 1955 to 1968 are fully covered via news film, often unedited. The show begins by contrasting King with other, angrier black Civil Rights leaders preaching armed resistance to combat the persecution and killings of black Americans. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King instead uses his pulpit to organize non-violent demonstrations; he is first seen commenting on the Rosa Parks controversy. The pattern is always the same. Local politicians, sheriffs and "Public Safety Commissioners" arrest black congregations marching or walking to publicize a boycott or to resist an edict. Blacks lined up at a courthouse are pushed off the steps with clubs when they show up to register to vote. The local police blocking the demonstrators come off as brutes and thugs. Alabama's governor goes on film to complain about white agitators invading from the outside. He calls King a menace and warns him to get out of the state. 1
It now seems amazing that the police and sheriffs of these Southern cities would behave the way they do knowing that news cameras are trained on them. The Civil Rights movement demonstrated how even a small protest, reported on Television, could dramatically affect public opinion. King: A Filmed Record shows clashes with enough context for us to see that these courageous black activists aren't really showing off for the cameras. When a line of non-threatening marchers is charged and trampled by a phalanx of officers with clubs, we see their moral commitment, not a publicity stunt.
When the bus boycott gets results, Dr. King moves to a new challenge, boycotting segregationist businesses that keep 'separate but equal' facilities and that don't hire blacks. Calm groups of protesters are hauled off to jail in school buses, and when they still don't give up, the "Safety" Commissioner uses police dogs and fire hoses. The official brutality encourages cowardly nighttime attacks, and the violence escalates to bombings of churches and homes -- homegrown terror. When the ensuing mayhem hits the evening news, the demonstrators win.
King: A Filmed Record is punctuated at appropriate intervals by loose montages of segregated facilities ("Colored Only" signs), the intervention of National Guardsmen dispatched by Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and an occasional speech by a segregationist. Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor calls Robert Kennedy "Bobby Sox and his brother the President" and shouts that they must be beaten at their own game. Also interrupting are brief appearances by guest celebrities, reciting passages by African-American authors and poets. Charlton Heston makes a rather Biblical speech, and James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte and others offer stirring recitations. Joanne Woodward's eulogy for four small girls killed in a terror bombing is particularly effective.
The first half concludes with the 1963 March on Washington, where church groups and union groups from across the country join thousands of individuals on The Mall. Mahalia Jackson sings; Martin Luther King gives his full, uncut "I have a dream" speech, which lasts just eight minutes. Most of us have only heard a few lines of the speech, one of the most famous of the 20th century.
The show resumes in Sweden, where King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We then move directly to a voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, and full coverage of all three 1964 marches in that city. The first two are blocked and brutally put down, but a third march accompanied by the National Guard reaches Montgomery. The news cameras of course catch the celebrities that come to march and perform. Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Tony Bennett and Peter, Paul and Mary sing; Mike Nichols and Elaine May do a comedy sketch. Later that summer Johnson signs the Voting Rights Bill and King is given the pen used in the ceremony.
At this point the tone of the news film turns darker. Dr. King brings his activists to Chicago and finds that everything is different. Marchers are opposed by angry mobs of white thugs and neo-Nazis. The cops trying to protect the black demonstrators have a tough time dealing with screaming racists. Delinquent black teens shout Black Power slogans and the black community riots, vandalizing and looting a downtown area. The peaceful marches are no longer peaceful. Back in Mississippi, King is met with death threats and shots ring out amid the chaos. Speech excerpts find Dr. King speaking of his mortality as an imminent fact. April 4, 1968 is not far away.
King: A Filmed Record is valuable because it tells its story without imposing an editorial opinion - the news film is selective, but all of it is real. We formulate our responses with more information, and perhaps question some of our earlier assumptions. After witnessing this material it is less possible to conclude that Civil Rights activists were simply agitating for attention, or could possibly have been manipulated by Communists. Non-violent protests are indeed a sort of public theater to spread word of a cause, but we see the opposing racists doing the exact same thing to energize their constituency. Mostly we see that King's methods worked. Public opinion everywhere backed the activists. Sheriff Jim Clark, wearing a badge that says "Never" to integration, comes off as just another white Southerner trying to turn back the clock.
One topic opened and not fully explored is Dr. King's public stance against the Vietnam War. A great many churchmen did the same, but they didn't have King's influential pulpit when he preached, "I will not segregate my moral concern." King: A Filmed Record was produced before the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Dr. King was revealed. After seeing this show, we wonder if his assassination was motivated by racial hatred, or for other political reasons.
Kino Classics' DVD of King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis is an excellent encoding spread across two discs to further improve the image quality. Much of the fine quality news film appears to be very close to the original camera sources.
The 1970 Television broadcast was produced by Ely Landau, known for his American Film Theater series, and prestigious feature films such as The Pawnbroker. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet directed the celebrity guest appearances.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This governor is none other than John Patterson, a politician who became Attorney General after his father was assassinated by vice lords. This was famously dramatized in the Phil Karlson film noir The Phenix City Story, which lauds Patterson as the friend of the persecuted black citizen. In reality, he was a committed enemy of organized crime and the Civil Rights movement.
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T'was Ever Thus.