Originally exhibited as a one-night-only theatrical event, this massive documentary about the civil-rights odyssey of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comprises chronologically ordered and expertly edited newsreel footage of key moments along King’s journey. As the title suggests, the picture begins in 1955, when King rose to national prominence by leading protests in Montgomery, Alabama, stemming from Rosa Parks’ bold defiance of a racist busing policy. King: A Filmed Record then depicts such iconic moments as King’s incarceration in Montgomery, where he wrote one of his most famous essays; his elegant responses to bombings and other violence committed by pro-segregation extremists; the March on Washington, including the historic “I Have a Dream” speech; King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize; the marches through Selma, Alabama, that forced the intervention of the U.S. government on behalf of civil-rights activists; and, finally, King’s funeral after his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
Eschewing narration, the film mostly lets archival footage stand on its own, although the project’s producer, Ely Landau, enlisted a number of noteworthy Hollywood liberals to appear on camera and read encomiums about King and/or pointed literary excerpts related to the never-ending struggle for equality and freedom. Stars participating in the project include Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Anthony Quinn, Clarence Williams III, and Joanne Woodward. (Most are onscreen for a minute or less.) Adding to the project’s Hollywood pedigree is the quiet participation of directors Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who presumably filmed the celebrity testimonials. King: A Filmed Record is a long movie, running three hours and featuring an intermission after the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the length works in the project’s favor. Beyond the historical value in compiling so many of King’s important achievements, the piece celebrates the incredible power of King’s oratory while never losing sight of context. The film’s editors often juxtapose shots of press conferences and speeches with harrowing footage of human-rights violations, as well as images that show pain tracking across the faces of everyday African-Americans who bear silent witness to pointless degradation.
Hovering over the whole experience of King: A Filmed Record is the heartbreaking knowledge of how King’s life ended. Every scene of the great man calling for dignity is tinged with the awareness of looming danger. Yet as King himself said in a prophetic speech that was played during his funeral, the survival of the dream was more important than the survival of the man. A tribute to both, King: A Filmed Record remains just as necessary and relevant as ever. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature, King: A Filmed Record was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1999.
King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis: RIGHT ON