Though it's scarcely been available since 1970, the uncompromising importance of Ely Landau's King: A Filmed Record is all the more evident now that it's been released on DVD by Kino Classics. Unobstructed by traditional narration or an obvious political slant, this 181-minute documentary pays tribute to the final 13 years of Reverend King's life mission. Beginning with the contrast between "whites vs. blacks"---as practiced by hate groups on both sides of the fence---and King's pleas for peace and understanding, we're given a condensed summary in just over five minutes. But that's not enough: we see King on the streets, with the people and behind bars, not just addressing crowds from a podium. From the aftermath of Rosa Park's actions to the martyrdom of our central figure, this condensed snapshot of 20th Century America still has the power to captivate audiences, even if they weren't alive to witness it firsthand.
King is obviously the featured participant here, and his numerous public speeches and writings---from "I Have a Dream" to "Letter from Birmingham Jail"---dominate the bulk of A Filmed Record's footage. Voices of dissent are occasionally heard from as well, which is a necessary step towards grasping the weight of King's words. "Celebrity guests" are also given moments of screen time including Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee, Anthony Quinn, Harry Bellafonte and others, who speak directly to the audience with related words of racial tolerance and injustice. Though first-time viewers may not feel such diversions are necessary, the release of A Filmed Record just two years after King's death undoubtedly required the support and endorsement of others. His murder sent ripples around the globe, so King's lasting influence all but guaranteed that his life's work would be passed on and retold many times. The combination of both elements gives us a broader picture than linear news footage would be able to create by itself.
At just over three hours total, King: A Filmed Record---originally presented as a one-night-only special event on March 20, 1970---goes by much more quickly than expected. Produced by Ely Landau and partially filmed by Sydney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this Academy Award-nominated documentary has previously only been available as a two-hour version during the last several decades. Kino Classics' new two-disc release presents the full-length film on DVD for a new generation to discover, and it's a strong effort in every department except for the bonus features. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, King: A Filmed Record is newly restored by the Library of Congress in association with Richard Kaplan and the Museum of Modern Art. Remastered in HD from the original 35mm preservation negative, this is a relatively stable 480p transfer which nonetheless has no shortage of scratches, blemishes and other imperfections. There's a pleasing grain structure overall and the picture is quite striking in motion, while black levels are typically flat with mild instances of flickering. I'd imagine that most of this footage was in rough condition to begin with; an introductory warning even mentions that certain segments are of poor quality but included for historical importance. Overall, this is a fine visual presentation that is, at best, strikingly crisp and, at worst, still perfectly watchable.
Similarly, the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio isn't perfect but still gets the job done. Dialogue and other speeches are mostly understandable but occasionally subtitled by scrolling text. Hiss, crackle and other distortions are generally kept to a minimum, though a few odd volume fluctuations were detected along the way. Unfortunately, no optional Closed Captions or subtitles have been included during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the static menu designs combine smooth navigation and a similar layout for both parts. This two-disc release is housed in a hinged black keepcase with attractive artwork and no inserts. It has not been tested for region limitations but is advertised as "Region 1" by Amazon and other online retailers.
Nothing, unfortunately, but the main feature stands quite well on its own. I'd have loved to see a photo gallery, other related memorabilia or even a demonstration of the film's restoration for this DVD release.
King: A Filmed Record is an essential documentary, whether you were alive during King's lifetime or not. This chronological collection of footage from 1955 to his murder in 1968 plays quite fluidly without the crutch of traditional narration, though the occasional "testimony" of figures like James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Joanne Woodward provides a break from the continuous exhibition of city landscapes, dissenting opinions and public demonstrations. Kino Classics' DVD package serves up a solid A/V presentation with a few understandable limitations, but the lack of extras proves disappointing. For obvious reasons, though, King: A Filmed Record should be considered a worthwhile addition to any film library. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.