Tom Brokaw continues to do yeoman work for NBC News’ production arm, though it’s telling that the network itself has no appetite for it. So his sort-of companion piece to “1968,” here thoroughly examining Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, again winds up on the History Channel, timed (as are CNN and MSNBC documentaries) to the 40th anniversary of King’s death. Credit Brokaw with delivering the best of the bunch, despite unnecessary nods to current affairs by including the likes of Bill Clinton and Condoleezza Rice among the talking heads.
Through interviews with King’s inner circle and rare footage, Brokaw provides a rich portrait of the man: charming, savvy about using television to promote civil rights, keenly aware of his own mortality, “extremely vulnerable” (as Harry Belafonte observes) and, yes, prone to sins of the flesh.
King somewhat reluctantly became the face of the movement, but his commitment to nonviolence — winning him the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, making him its youngest recipient — stemmed from personal conviction, which clashed with the convictions of younger leaders toward the end of his life. Equally controversial in those later years was King’s decision to speak out regarding poverty, regardless of color; and against the Vietnam War, which alienated former allies in the Johnson administration.
Capitalizing on the format, Brokaw devotes nearly three minutes to the “I Have a Dream” speech — a relative lifetime in TV — and details King’s strategic fight against segregation in Alabama and Mississippi. The project also sparingly but effectively documents FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with King and conspiracy theories connected to King’s murder.
The only really flat note involves the high-profile figures enlisted to ruminate about King, which has a high-school civics feel. OK, so Bono makes sense (he wrote that bitchin’ song), but the others come across as pandering to a demo that might not want to watch old people reminisce about events that occurred more than 40 years ago.
Granted, that’s a mere quibble, and given the dearth of TV documentaries with this kind of weight and substance, one that shouldn’t detract from what Brokaw continues to contribute with his forays into the cable space.