King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis
Film Review by Kam Williams
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person. Four days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the recently-ordained minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church decided to organize a boycott of the city’s buses.
“When the history books are written in the future,” he predicted that evening that “somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people, of black people, who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.’” After citing both the Constitution and the Bible as the source of inspiration, the 26 year-old pastor explained to the congregation that embracing a philosophy of non-violent resistance was critical in order to be able to live with white people as brothers “when the day comes that segregation is completely crumbled.”
And with that, the Civil Rights Movement was launched. A wave of Ku Klux Klan bombings simultaneously ensued, but Dr. King remained confident about his prospects for success, even after his own home had been blown up. He did hope, however, that future generations would appreciate “that these new privileges did not come without somebody suffering for them.”
The most powerful, cinematic reminder of those many sacrifices is King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis. Produced by Ely Landau and associate Richard Kaplan, this poignant account of Dr. King’s tireless crusade was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 in the Best Documentary category.
The monumental, B&W epic is a compelling collage cobbled together from a mix of newsreels and rare footage of marches, speeches, protests and arrests. This newly-restored, HD version co-produced by the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art was narrated by a number of celebrities, including Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Paul Newman, to name a few.
But those luminaries merely played a support role in service of the stirring story of how the Birmingham boycott blossomed into a nationwide effort to end Jim Crow segregation. Whether it’s the sit-ins, freedom rides or voter registration drives, again and again, we witness a determined people undeterred by police dogs, teargas, billy clubs, firemen’s hoses and the constant threat of state-sanctioned, vigilante attacks.
Dr. King’s followers were perhaps comforted by their charismatic leader’s mild-mannered assurances that, “Once you conquer the fear of death, you’re free.” The picture’s high points are invariably his words, whether in a letter written behind bars in a Birmingham jail, in a spellbinding speech delivered before hundreds of thousands at The March on Washington, or in a prophetic address in Memphis on the night before his assassination in 1968.
A timeless tribute to a selfless martyr who led his people to the Promised Land by holding fast to his fervent faith that their willingness to endure suffering along the way would exceed their enemies’ capacity to inflict suffering.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 181 minutes
Distributor: Kino Lorber / Kino Classics
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