New flicks explore the civil rights giant’s legacy in the Trump era
Martin Luther King Jr. died 50 years ago this April 4, hours after he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. A half century later, the good reverend’s legacy looms large: A dedicated memorial in the nation’s capital places the civil rights legend on the same revered plane as FDR and Lincoln; his birthday is celebrated as an American holiday; and the power of his example has inspired thousands of non-violent marches, both here and abroad.
So is there more to learn from the 39 years that King was alive? New documentaries that commemorate the 50th anniversary of his murder make a convincing positive case. “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media,” which recently aired on NBC, draws parallels between the racism King faced in the Jim Crow era and today’s internet-inspired neo-Nazis. And now HBO’s “King In the Wilderness,” premiering on Monday, dwells on how the Baptist minister’s legacy survived the difficult last years of his life.
HBO’s take, directed by Peter Kunhardt (“Becoming Warren Buffett”) and executive produced by Peabody-winning screenwriter Trey Ellis, finds King in a dark place. It’s almost five years past his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, and President Lyndon B. Johnson has signed two groundbreaking civil rights bills. But King’s sway is challenged by younger activists like Stokely Carmichael who won’t rule out using violence in pursuit of equality.
“We like to think of him as always beloved, but the last three years of his life, he was at his least popular,” Ellis tells Moneyish. Many whites saw him as too radical, while a growing number of African Americans abandoned his Southern Leadership Conference for the Black Power movement, because they viewed King as too soft.
Meanwhile, King headed to the supposedly friendlier north, where he hoped to tackle the poverty and informal housing segregation that many blacks still faced despite the promise of equality. “The vehemence and anger the whites in the Chicago suburbs had was so incredible,” says Ellis. “It was quite extraordinary … this never-before-seen footage of what were really white riots.”
What made King soldier on? “King in the Wilderness” argues — via rare archival footage and interviews with civil rights leaders such as Rep. John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, and Harry Belafonte — that his legacy thrived because the reverend was a happy warrior. A striking scene sees the titular character and Carmichael walking down a country road, physically separated only by a TV reporter to whom the younger activist preaches the virtues of violence, which the reverend calmly refutes.
“He wasn’t threatened by other ideas. He always wanted to listen and talk with Stokely,” says Ellis. “Non-violence was practical for Dr. King, because he understood that black people as a minority, without recourse to weapons, couldn’t win a violent battle. But it was also a spiritual battle, to win the fight for equality and keep your soul. Non-violence is radical, and not easy. It’s not just laying down and taking it, but being strategic.”
Violence by white supremacists, on the other hand, pervades “Hope & Fury,” executive produced by NBC News chairman Andy Lack and directed by veteran filmmakers Phil Bertelson and Rachel Dretzin. The NBC flick intersperses footage of violence at landmark events like the Greensboro Sit-Ins and James Meredith’s matriculation at Ole Miss with contemporary video from the 2017 Charlottesville riots.
King occasionally seems like a secondary figure in this documentary, a strategist keen to provoke sympathetic headlines whenever his acolytes get beaten down by racist mobs. If that sounds Machiavellian, it’s also precisely the point of civil disobedience. “Non-violence depends on violence to make a point by bringing things into sharp relief,” says Dretzin. “From the beginning, he positioned himself in an advantageous way. He really understood the press.”
Hence, the parallels to today, when mainstream media organizations are lambasted by the commander-in-chief by tweet and booed at campaign rallies. Back then, southern segregationists saw northern reporters, many sympathetic to King, as the enemy. Journalists are attacked— and in one case, killed— at riots. “They sensed that the press was biased and had an agenda. That we create situations rather than observe them,” says Dretzin. “We are a harder target today because of the press’ diversity. But by the same token, we can’t move the country as one.”
Which begets the question of what King would make of racial relations in Trump’s America. According to an NBC/WSJ poll from last fall, just a quarter of Americans say they approve of the President’s handling of race relations generally.
Unsurprisingly, that was a question posed by Ellis to every person he interviewed. “All of them said that he’d be horrified but energized,” he says. “They’re in their 80s and beyond now, and often hear from people who say they would have loved to pitch in. They say don’t worry about not having acted in a time of crisis. We are in a time of crisis now.”
This article was originally published on March 22.
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