A correction was made to this review on Jan. 16, 2004.
Even viewers who lived during the 1963-68 period covered in “Citizen King” may find their assumptions challenged and misconceptions corrected by this impressively researched, cogently structured and altogether illuminating account of the final five years in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Set to air Jan. 19 (the 75th anniversary of King’s birth) as an “American Experience” presentation on PBS, outstanding docu will have long shelf life in non-theatrical showcases, and as an invaluable educational film.
Co-directors Orlando Bagwell and W. Noland Walker employ the standard tools of historical documentarians — home movies, archival photos and news clippings, TV and newsreel footage — to accompany newly filmed interviews with friends and advisers, reporters and eyewitnesses. (Conspicuously absent from the mix: Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s more famous colleagues.) Material has been shaped into a compelling narrative, tracing King’s evolution as an activist for civil rights and economic justice until his 1968 assassination.
Pic begins with 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., where King writes his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” after being arrested for taking part in an “illegal” march. Another highlight is the epochal March on Washington, during which King delivers his legendary, rousing “I Have a Dream” speech — despite the advice of well-intentioned colleagues. Ironically, Wyatt T. Walker remembers, he and Andrew Young had suggested a new climax for the speech, because the “dream” reference was, in their view, “tired.”
“Citizen King” covers acres of familiar territory, but remains fascinating by recalling historical context and suggesting cause-and-effect connections.
The notorious 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church (which resulted in the deaths of four girls attending Sunday School) is rendered as a direct response by racists to the March on Washington. Later that same year, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy serves as a sobering object lesson to King’s inner circle. “We knew,” Walter Fauntroy says, “that if they can take out a President, they can take out Martin.”
Both Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson come across in pic as well-meaning politicos who occasionally erred on the side of placating white voters. (Kennedy and his brother Robert actively discourage the March on Washington.)
But FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is condemned for his “pathological hatred of black people,” and for his efforts to depict King as a subversive who consorted with known Communists. The smear campaign was at least partially successful: At one point, docu shows King questioned about possible Red influence in the Civil Rights movement by a very young Dan Rather.
Bagwell and Walker don’t shy away from brief mention of Hoover’s dirtiest trick: After wiretapping King’s phone calls, the FBI chief sent recorded evidence of the King’s extramarital affairs to his wife Coretta. Episode stands out as one of docu’s relatively few glimpses of King’s private life.
Pic is more revealing about King’s moments of painful self-awareness and gnawing self-doubt. At one point, says a colleague, he bluntly acknowledged: “I can’t make little mistakes anymore. Every mistake I make now is a big mistake. History has seized me.”
Many allies in the Civil Rights movement thought King made major tactical mistakes when, starting in 1967, began to speak out against the Vietnam War — thereby alienating LBJ — and for “a radical redistribution of wealth” to aid poor people of all races. “Citizen King” does a good job of charting King’s steps toward embracing causes beyond integration and voter registration, even as pic demonstrates how King’s nonviolent creed placed him in conflict with more outspoken “black power” firebrands.
Latter is powerfully underscored in pic’s most startling sequence, one that no Hollywood scribe would dare invent: A TV news reporter marches between King and Stokely Carmichael on a Mississippi road, tuning his microphone from side to side while each man in turn makes his case for his vision of achieving social justice.
Neither muckraking nor hagiographic, “Citizen King” strives to offer a scrupulously balanced, life-size portrait of a moral leader whose struggles and achievements might otherwise be minimized or incorrectly remembered as memories fade, revisionists reinterpret and first-hand witnesses pass away.