The fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occasions a New York screening of the rarely shown documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970). Consisting primarily of newsreel footage, the movie chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s stewardship of the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination thirteen years later. This vital commemorative event takes on even greater urgency when viewed against the backdrop of quite recent, dispiriting legal decisions: the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in June and George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case last month. Just as important, King: A Filmed Record also counterbalances the unconscionably cartoonish dramatization of the civil rights era in Lee Daniels’s The Butler, now in theaters.
Produced by Ely Landau, King: A Filmed Record was originally shown as a one-time-only event on March 24, 1970, nearly two years after the reverend’s murder on April 4, 1968. (The three-hour-long documentary, according to the New York Times review, played at more than fifty theaters in the five boroughs of New York alone.) A brief prologue juxtaposes speakers of fiery rhetoric—“We’re going to put every cracker in America on his knees! We want black power”—with snippets of King’s speeches espousing nonviolence and interracial harmony. From there, the documentary proceeds linearly, inexorably, stirringly, devastatingly, detailing the cycle of action and reaction, of courage colliding with hate, that defined the years covered in the film: bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, and marches met with fire-hosings, clubbings, and bombings.
This history, from which we are only a generation or two removed, is presented without narration and with an economy of titles listing dates and names—whether those of King’s allies (Fred Shuttlesworth, Reverend C. T. Vivian) or foes (“Bull” Connor, Sheriff Jim Clark, who sports a button declaring NEVER on his lapel). Ten people in the film appear without any ID at all: a multiracial group of prominent actors (eight men, two women) who recite from unidentified texts. Often disjunctive, sometimes ridiculous, these interstitial segments, directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, aren’t entirely without interest: I’ll never forget the slight twitching of Ruby Dee’s left hand during her reading, as if she, still charged with raw emotion, were revolting, ever so slightly, against a staid exercise.
Of course, there are few speeches from this country’s history as soaring, as transcendent as those delivered by King, whether in front of national monuments or from church pulpits; this invaluable film’s greatest asset is the presentation of several of these electrifying orations in their entirety. But just as unforgettable are those moments that capture “the moral leader of our nation,” to use A. Philip Randolph’s description, in unscripted delight: King, soon to address a church in Chicago regarding the open-housing movement there in 1966, beams as Mahalia Jackson sings “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”; he laughs as an associate presents him with a series of gag gifts for his birthday. “Thank you very much. I’m just getting older is all,” he says to his well-wishers. This birthday—King’s thirty-ninth—would be his last. --Artforum