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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » King: The Martin Luther King Story (Blu-ray)
King: The Martin Luther King Story (Blu-ray)
Olive Films // Unrated // January 27, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted January 27, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

One of the best qualities of Ava DuVernay's excellent Selma is that, instead of trying to construct a traditional biopic about Martin Luther King Jr, it focuses solely on one of the most important struggles of his life, without even a single sequence that flashes back or forward to another time in his brief but extremely impactful existence. This way, DuVernay was able to examine a tumultuous time in American history with more patience and detail instead of letting a feature's limited runtime force her into skimming over King's life.

For proof of this, you don't need to look any further than King, Abby Mann's well-regarded 1978 miniseries covering almost the entire life of Martin Luther King Jr. King's mere 39 years on this planet was full of so many conflicts and accomplishments that even a miniseries clocking in at four and a half hours could only deal with the surface details of his life without being able to truly delve deep into the man and his goals as a whole. I guess another miniseries lasting at least ten hours could get the job done some day. But for now, King provides fans of African-American civil rights history with an accomplished and skillful coverage of Martin Luther King Jr's life.

The miniseries consists of three episodes, each one as long as a feature. The structure as a whole presents a pretty conventional biopic. We begin somewhere near the end of King's life, in this case a particularly violent moment during the Chicago Freedom Movement that's shot and edited in a raw style of documentary realism that was rare in television those days. This opening is used as a framing device to flash back to the time King (Paul Winfield) met his future wife Coretta Scott King (Cicely Tyson) in 1952. From this point on, King follows a linear narrative as we jump from one important moment in King's life to another without much of a visual or thematic through line. What keeps the whole project together, however, are the excellent performances and Mann's obviously deep passion for the project.

A legend in television and the writer of perhaps the greatest courtroom drama ever made, Judgement at Nuremberg, Abby Mann decided that King would be his first and eventually only directorial effort. He was in touch with King himself until his death, preparing for a biopic to be hopefully released while he was still alive. Unfortunately, as we all know, this goal couldn't be realized. Yet Mann powered through with his ambition of giving life to King's story in the most comprehensive way he could.

The first two episodes focus mostly on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March From Selma to Montgomery respectively. These episodes manage to cover the more important events and speeches from those movements, from Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus to the infamous march for voting rights. Mann manages to pull of a tricky juggling act with the running time he was given as he covers these major events, King's famous speeches, as well as scenes about family life that humanizes King beyond the school book version of him that most people know and identify with.

The third episode is the most problematic, as Mann attempts to cram in the Chicago protests, King's stance against Vietnam and his attempts to help the sanitation workers in Memphis. This is the episode where Mann's miniseries turns into a Cliff's Notes version of King's life. It stumbles to the finish line in a clinical fashion as the lead-up to the climax that was supposed to be emotionally draining ends up feeling like a technicality.

Regardless, King is a somewhat essential viewing for anyone who's interested in Martin Luther King Jr's life as a whole. Of course we have Selma, as well as the underappreciated TV movie Boycott, with Jeffrey Wright as the best representation of King until David Oyelowo came along, but King is the only fictionalized attempt at an all-inclusive biopic. Despite all of its shortcomings, it's a powerful and inspiring one.

The Blu-Ray:

Video:

King's 1080p transfer suffers from a couple of issues that actually get in the way of fully enjoying an HD presentation of this important miniseries. The first issue is one I'm not entirely sure is an issue to begin with, depending on the way King was meant to be presented. The HD transfer sports a 16:9 aspect ratio while it's perfectly clear that King was originally broadcast in the TV-friendly 4:3 ratio, which means that the top and bottom of the original framing might have been cut. I couldn't notice any clear awkwardness in the framing, so it's possible that King was shot to be projected on theatre screens as well. The other issue is a much bigger one, and that's the fact that a good chunk of the transfer suffers from ghosting, where the outline of the image pops out, creating a sort of double vision. This issue is easier to ignore during close-ups but on wider shots, smaller objects look like raw 3D images. Until these issues are fixed or addressed, I would recommend a rental to even the most die-hard fans of the miniseries.

Audio:

There isn't any information on King's packaging regarding the audio mix, but I would bet that the DTS-HD 2.0 transfer represents a mono presentation. This is a mild pet peeve of mine, since I prefer mono mixes to come out of the center channel only. Otherwise, this dialogue-heavy presentation is transferred very clearly.

Extras:

There are four mini-documentaries on this Blu-Ray, which look like they were ported over from an older DVD release. In total, they offer very valuable information to anyone interested in learning more about King's life and struggles. Each of them last between 15 to 20 minutes.

Recreating History: Abby Mann discusses his experiences talking to and working with King himself.

In Conversation With Abby Mann and Tony Bennett: Mann and Bennett, who briefly plays himself in the miniseries, talk openly and passionately about their experiences with King.

The Struggle: A quick look at the civil rights struggle of the 60s, with Ossie Davis, who portrayed Martin Luther King Sr in the miniseries, talking honestly about his experiences with racism.

The Civil Right Movement: This is kind of an extension of The Struggle, as Ossie Davis and other civil rights figures give more details about their involvement in the movement.

Final Thoughts:

With delicate yet fiery performances from Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson that successfully anchor the long and mostly disconnected narrative, King is a flawed but important miniseries to check out. The issues with the video presentation makes it hard to fully recommend a purchase, at least until they are hopefully resolved in the future, but it definitely warrants a rental.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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