The major accomplishments of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. have been covered in countless programs and documentaries, not to mention in print before. Even so, the PBS-produced Citizen King concentrates on the final five years of the pioneer's life, including some incidents and experiences that are at odds with the standard King vibe. His most well-known acts, like the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, non-violent protests based on the actions of Mahatma Gandhi, have been used to paint a rosy historical picture of King that portrays him in a saintly light. Real-life, of course, is never that simple, and Citizen King spends its nearly-two hour running time concentrating more on the projects that often left the civil rights movement in turmoil.
Citizen King spans the years from 1963 to 1968. Starting seven years after the Montgomery bus boycotts, the protests that brought King to national prominence, the film follows him through the highs of the March on Washington and the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but it also shows some low points in his activist career that might be surprising to those who have mostly learned the simplified version of the story. By blending together a lot of fascinating archival footage along with newly shot interviews with many members of King's inner circle, the filmmakers make the film feel personal while still getting across a pretty good sense of the magnitude of King's impact on the civil rights movement.
Citizen King does imply that the marches and protests couldn't really always placate the masses. It follows King as he prepares for an Alabama march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. After a positive start, the Selma march ends pretty much in disaster as the local lawmen attack the marchers. The ensuing voilence, broadcast on television sickened the nation and led to the Voting Rights Act, but once again it laid bare the problems that plagued the nation.
Another touchy situation finds King in Los Angeles in response to the Watts riot. It's pretty stunning to see King booed and heckled by a black audience over his insistence on non-violent protest. He's forced to confront a portion of the population that's beyond the point of holding hands and singing "we shall overcome." King has been held up as a shining example of the power of positive reform but it's clear from some of the less-well known parts of his story that that philosophy didn't connect with everyone in the black community.
There are also times when King's own words are surprisingly blunt. He calls Mississippi a "police state," "evil," and "the lowest state in our union" after tear gas is used on a peaceful meeting. And his attempt to march through Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, ends in total chaos, providing some of the film's most urgent footage: Seeing King react to the explosions going off around him is pretty frightening. The lack of national response to the Cicero debacle and the suggestion by the New York Times that there be a moratorium on civil rights marches seems to inspire King to take his fight global by strongly criticizing the Vietnam War. Considering that this means speaking out against the president who pushed through the legislation that King had fought for, it's not surprising that this earned him a bit of a backlash. These, and other struggles during this era, take a toll on King, who begins to wear down, a human side to the leader that we're not usually shown.
Still, even though the film does discuss some of the tougher aspects of King's legacy, it does play soft with a more troubling and personal side. It really only mentions King's womanizing as an example of how FBI phone-tapping and snooping dragged sleazy private business out into the open. However, King isn't called to task for these transgressions. It's somehow just the FBI's fault.
That's a minor quibble in what's basically a solid portrait of King's achievements and struggles in the last period of his life. There is also some nice personal footage that helps flesh out our impression of him as a person in addition to just informing us of his status as a leader.
The anamorphic widescreen footage looks very good. The newly shot interviews look crisp and clean and the archival footage, which comes from a variety of sources, is mostly presented very well. I'm sure the archival footage has been cropped to fit the anamorphic frame, but it's been handled very well and looks good.
The Dolby Digital sound is very clear. The voices are crisp and never muddy.
An interview with director Orlando Bagwell is included. It's a well-produced piece that intercuts footage from the film with Bagwell's memories of King and his thoughts on making the film. This ten-minute piece is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Also worth noting is PBS's annoying habit of including unskippable ads from sponsors at the head of the program. I understand running these on TV (someone has to pay for PBS) but on a DVD that's been purchased these ads should at least be skippable chapters.
Citizen King is an engaging film when it delves into details about some of the less textbook parts of the civil rights leader's journey. It's a little less successful at taking a critical eye to him as a man. But this isn't meant to be an exposť: It's another loving portrait by those who knew him well. Although Coretta Scott King wasn't involved in the film, it does feel like an inside job. Still, there's a lot of good information, some excellent archival footage, and a lot of strength on the screen.