For all the anger and frustration that drives the story behind the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955, director Clark Johnson and writers Herman Daniel Farrell III and Timothy J. Sexton address matters with a soothing calmness that has the assurance of a tight embrace. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jeffrey Wright is completely in step with their particular bent, playing the civil rights leader with hushed zeal and an inner flame that grows into a fuel burn by telepic’s end.
Inspired by Stewart Burns’ book “Daybreak of Freedom,” “Boycott” covers the birth of the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate a “whites only” seat on a city bus on Dec. 1, 1955, until the end of the bus boycott more than a year later. Telepic powerfully captures the spirit of the movement, the uncertainty that arose with every decision to organize and fight an unjust system and, finally, the triumph of a community bound by a singular objective.
“Boycott’s” deepest message is about faith and how this community’s spiritual leaders demonstrated trust in each other as well as their parishioners.
The behind-closed-doors scenes, which draw on the knowledge of consultants Henry Louis Gates Jr., Patricia Sullivan and Burns, are among the most affecting, establishing King as the pensive young man within a group that included Ralph Abernathy (a terrif portrayal by Terrence Howard) and the activist E.D. Nixon (Reg E. Cathey).
The film is artier in its execution than virtually all previous HBO film projects; use of B&W, grainy, home movie-ish footage and hand-held cameras pushes story off the linear track with tangential anecdotes, but it humanizes King and his contemporaries.
The whites in power are uniformly backward thinkers and by presenting them consistently in black-and-white newsreel footage, Johnson assigns them an imperious weight; in color, the white/black confrontations level out the playing field and set up the ripening power of the black citizens.
To present scenes in five different visual styles — feature film, documentary, 1950s stock footage, newsreel and home movie — film utilizes IDI/Stargate’s technique dubbed Digital Intermediate, in which the entire movie is digitally hand-painted. It is the first film to use the process throughout. Pic closes on a “home movie” of King and his wife, Coretta, enjoying time with their young daughter in the early stages of walking; its heartwarming tone is a perfect coda.
Wright’s perf as the 26-year-old minister is a study in careful articulation, his almost constant reflection manifesting itself in strong, assuring words to a public hungry for guidance. We watch as the others slowly give in to King’s magnetic pull.
As Parks, Iris Little-Thomas portrays a determined woman filled with conviction; as King’s wife, Carmen Ejogo limns a loving and beautiful woman whose bonds with her husband are strengthened as she adheres to his convictions.
Johnson, who played the cool cop Meldrick Lewis on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and has directed episodes of “The West Wing” and “Law & Order: SVU,” among others, displays a masterful hand here, avoiding the lure to do more with the technology of today or the hyperbole of the period. Director of photography David Hennings maintains a steady point of view.
Location filming is consistently strong, with older churches effectively evoking the Old South. Costumes and interior design subtly and effectively delineate levels of education and wealth within black families’ homes.