Not rated (TV film). Running time: 271 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Veteran TV writer/director Abby Mann, a firm friend of Dr. King, made this film as a miniseries for NBC Television in 1978 to commemorate the 10th year of Dr. King’s assassination. Although there is a shorter bio film available (Boycott, also well produced), this version is suggested because of its stellar cast and interesting minor cast members—and most of all, because it covers so many details of Dr. King’s short but meaningful life. In addition, you can find copies of it for sale at bargain prices at Amazon.com
As mentioned above, the film gives a fairly full account of the turbulent life of the activist pastor from his courting of Coretta Scott, when he was a nattily dressed theological student and she an aspiring concert singer, through their early days at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In response to the protest over the arrest of Rosa Parks the new pastor was almost pushed into leadership of the boycott for the very reason that he was so new and thus had not made any enemies thus far.
The film depicts King as very much human, from his cocky student days when he thought of himself as a ladies man, through his reluctance to assume leadership, and once saddled with it, his fear for his family’s safety. At one point, his anxieties led him to purchase a gun despite his pacifist beliefs. The iconic moments are there, including, of course, his “I Have a Dream” speech and, much earlier in Montgomery, his calming the angry crowd of blacks who had flocked to his damaged house after the bomb blast. Equally important, we see King from a prophetic perspective denouncing the Vietnam War, which caused so many of his white supporters to denounce him. Even some of his closest colleagues accused him of harming the Civil Rights Movement by turning President Johnson into an enemy. Even a more staunch enemy was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: the incident of the tapes of King’s alleged extra-marital affairs is dealt with, though not in much detail.
Veteran cast members include Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, and Ossie Davis as, respectively, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Martin Luther King, Sr. Also there is Howard E. Rollins, Jr. as Andrew Young and Dick Anthony Williams as Malcolm X. In the category of “interesting cast members” are singer Tony Bennett, also a good friend of the Kings, who plays himself, as does former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. In addition, members of King’s own family appear briefly—Daughters Yolanda as Rosa Parks and Bernice King as a student; also sons Dexter and MLK III and niece Bernice King. In the resignation scene the singer who begins the hymn “Blest be the Tie That Binds” is Martin’s older sister Christine King Farms.
The picture of Dr. King that emerges from the film is a great, but flawed, Warrior for Peace, who readily acknowledged his indebtedness to Gandhi. His interaction with the Kennedys is well portrayed, especially in the sequence of the Freedom Riders, when lives hung in the balance due to the murderous rage of the segregationist mobs surrounding the church where he and they had sought refuge. Now over four and a half decades since his untimely murder, his life and his eloquent words still challenge us to take up the torch of freedom.
Abby Mann’s film does have its inaccuracies: The wrong date is given for Dr. King’s sermon at Riverside Church denouncing the Vietnam War (it was on April 4, 1967), and it shows him meeting with Malcolm X—a year after the latter’s murder. Despite these and other flaws, it provides some dramatic scenes that capture the spirit of King, perhaps introducing him to those born since his death on a more personal level than any textbook or rebroadcast of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Note: This will be one of the more than 3 dozen films (with many discussion questions) that will be included in my book for peacemakers Blessed Are the Filmmakers that ReadtheSpiritcom will publish later this year.