The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than most civil rights leaders, understood the singular role that television played in documenting the brutality of racial violence on African-Americans and eliciting sympathy from white viewers. As three new television documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of his assassination show, King embraced prime time news television coverage as a matter of political strategy and survival through his savvy use of sound bites, well-timed protests and the practice of nonviolence in the face of abuse.
These documentaries share much in common. They feature some familiar civil rights voices, most notably those of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists John Lewis and Diane Nash, and reveal how King’s relationships with the news media and the movement waned dramatically in his final years. And they attempt to present a more radical version of King to a new generation of viewers, with varying degrees of success.
“Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media,” which aired on NBC in late March and returns on MSNBC on April 1, is a two-hour documentary about the strained yet symbiotic relationship between civil rights activists and the emergent nightly television news. “We felt there was so much hagiography of the movement and a flattening of the characters into a one-dimensional portrait,” said Rachel Dretzin, a producer and co-director; Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, is executive producer. “The decision to focus on the political savvy and the sophistication of King and other leaders of the movement ended up making it much more dimensional and interesting to us.”
Opening with Andrew Young’s declaration that “one of the reasons Martin Luther King was so successful was that he understood television,” “Hope & Fury” begins with the invisibility of black life and racial suffering on American television before the 1957 coverage of the black students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Before, it was black newspapers like The Baltimore Afro-American and The Chicago Defender that provided comprehensive reporting on African-Americans. The film reminds us that television images of federal troops protecting brave and innocent black youth from white protesters was new for white Americans and helped spark people’s consciences.
“Hope & Fury” largely relies on archival footage and commentary from former civil rights activists and historians as well as journalists both veteran (Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Moses Newson) and contemporary (Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times and Chris Hayes and Joy-Ann Reid of MSNBC). And while an intense focus on the importance of television by a major news network risks veering toward the self-congratulatory, the film’s strength lies in its acknowledgment of a singular debt, not just to King, but to an ensemble of civil rights leaders. “Hope & Fury” is careful to show that it was the momentum of the civil rights movement that helped increase the audience of evening news, expand its format and enshrine its authority.
On April 4 on the Paramount Network, “I Am MLK Jr.” will showcase the highlights of King’s activism, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Directed by John Barbisan and Michael Hamilton, the documentary features older civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, contemporary media personalities like Van Jones and celebrities like Nick Cannon. An interview with Shaun King, a key figure in Black Lives Matter, is the film’s most obvious nod to how King’s activism has inspired action today. But, with the notable exception of Ms. Nash and a few others including her fellow SNCC member Rutha Mae Harris, the largely patrilineal tradition of black activism portrayed here overlooks those girls and women of color who have long been at the forefront of social justice movements.
Turning to the final chapters of King’s life, HBO’s “King in the Wilderness,” airing on April 2, presents an image of King that might be familiar to academics and leftist activists but unrecognizable to many Americans. The filmmakers pulled hundreds of news accounts from 1968-2014 about King, said Peter Kunhardt, the director. In most, he said, “the reporter would summarize him with the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” He went on, “It never went beyond that. So we were pleased to not deal with that aspect and look at the nightmare the dream turned into.”
Relying heavily on “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” the final book in Taylor Branch’s King trilogy (Mr. Branch is also an executive producer), the film portrays King as both dejected and rejected. He is disillusioned by the turn from civil rights to Black Power among a younger generation of African-Americans and the backlash he receives for protesting racial injustice in northern cities like Chicago, opposing the Vietnam War, and demanding fair pay and equitable working conditions for black laborers.
For Trey Ellis, an executive producer, presenting King not as a towering figure but as an outsider was part of what drew him to the project. King “actually outlived his legend,” Mr. Ellis said. “I think the documentary is really important in showing he did deal with contemporary issues we’re dealing with right now.” He added, ”Even when the press had turned against him, when black people turned against him and saw nonviolence as soft, and whites saw him as a communist. Even his own advisers were questioning him. He just put his head down and did the work.”
“King in the Wilderness” benefits from its counterintuitive approach. We see the continuing influence of King’s wife, Coretta, to carry on with his nonviolent philosophy, particularly his stance against the Vietnam War. In one compelling moment, Xernona Clayton, an event organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, celebrates King’s birthday by giving him gag gifts that will help him when he’s arrested. King, though clearly tired, is tickled by the gesture.
In order to crystallize the moral courage of King’s nonviolence, however, all three films share an antipathy toward the Black Power movement that will fully blossom in 1968. For Jeanne Theoharis, author of “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,” such narratives present a two-dimensional sense of the relationship between the civil rights and Black Power movements and obscure how their conflicts existed earlier as well. “I think there are real debates going on in the mid-1960s in the black freedom struggle about black power,” she said. “Clearly not everyone is on the same page. Even if Malcolm X is super hated in the early 1960s, it doesn’t mean that King is loved.”
Television news stoked this tension. “Black Power and the movement that emerged in the mid-1960s complicated the narrative” for many journalists, said Phil Bertelsen, a producer and co-director of “Hope & Fury.” “A simple straightforward narrative of good versus evil now was a little bit more nuanced.” Not only did nightly news seem to require a charismatic male civil rights leader like King, but as “Hope & Fury” shows, it also prioritized black suffering over black self-defense, making the rise of the Black Panther Party ill-suited for a prime-time white audience.
“Toward the end of his career, King began to castigate the media for focusing solely on the most famous personalities and spectacular events,” said Brandon Terry, editor of the essay collection “Fifty Years Since MLK.” Mr. Terry suggests that King gave us a glimpse of his new strategy in his book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” written a year before his death.
“More and more, the civil rights movement will become engaged in the task of organizing people into permanent groups to protect their own interests and to produce change in their behalf,” King wrote. “This task is tedious, and lacks the drama of demonstrations, but it is necessary for meaningful results.”
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