Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington, and across the country, various events are happening to mark the historic occasion. For the cinematically minded, there’s something worth paying attention to in the form of the epic Oscar-nominated documentary “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery To Memphis,” which is screening at over 400 locations nationwide for one night only. And for anyone who perhaps wasn’t old enough to experience the March On Washington for themselves that needs a reminder and education of just how powerful the moment was and everything that led up to it, ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ is worth checking out.
But first, a quick background on the film: assembled by Ely Landau, who produced the picture alongside Richard Kaplan, the film is not your typical documentary. Running over three hours long, it tracks the rise and tragic death of Martin Luther King Jr. from 1955 to 1968, utilizing simply reels upon reels upon reels of uncut, un-narrated newsreel footage, television broadcasts and more. 43 years ago, on March 24, 1970, the film had a one night screening at that time as well, qualifying for an Oscar nom, but after that it was a bit harder to find. The doc would occasionally play on television, but mostly circulated on video via educational institutions. In 1999 it was added to National Film Registry, and in 2010 work finally began on a proper DVD version.
But why watch it on the big screen? Well, it’s not for the visuals so much as the slow build of its narrative, which picks up power and intensity as you settle into the film’s unhurried pace, something a theater experience would more easily allow versus the distractions of the living room. And it’s not just for that alone—here are 5 reasons why you should track down ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ on this historic day.
1. Witness the entire “I Have A Dream” speech, not just the popular soundbites.
Everyone knows Martin Luther King Jr.’s monumental “I Have A Dream” speech…or do they? While it’s practically written into the historic DNA of the country, the speech is usually covered in news broadcasts by excerpting a few key moments for a quick segment, before the show moves on to whatever Miley Cyrus is doing now. But in ‘Montgomery To Memphis,’ you get to hear every second of the roughly 17-minute speech, and it is riveting for every single minute. It’s an unblinking reminder of not only MLK’s ideals, but the eloquence, clarity and sincere passion with which he expressed them. If the waterworks don’t start flowing when he first gets to saying “I have a dream,” they will by time he shouts out the first “Let freedom ring!”
2. Truly appreciate how revolutionary Martin Luther King’s stance of nonviolent resistance was at the time.
While ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ does focus extensively on MLK’s oratory prowess—many of his famous speeches here are presented in full— one of the biggest takeaways from the documentary is how remarkable the Gandhi-inspired position of nonviolent resistance really was. Landau and Kaplan’s film spares no amount of footage chronicling the brutality activists and black protesters faced from beatings, dogs, water hoses, batons, fists and more. It can be harrowing, hard to watch stuff at times. But even after the ugliest of incidents on the darkest of nights, MLK’s continued assertion to not only refuse to fight back, but to love and bless the enemy is astonishing. It’s a reminder of MLK’s tremendous and clearly inspiring strength of will in the face of seemingly unendurable hardship. “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering,” MLK says at a Methodist Youth Leadership Conference, and as the film shows, he meant every word.
3. As a reminder that the Civil Rights battles were not quickly won.
It takes about 30 minutes to settle into the rhythm of ‘Montgomery To Memphis,’ and perhaps even a bit longer when it finally strikes you that the protests MLK led were long-fought battles. While movies tend to speed up history, this documentary reminds you that the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over one year before it was resolved. The voter drive that started in Selma and culminated in the march to Montgomery, was a two year effort, which featured no shortage of violence and opposition. One of the things to treasure about ‘Montgomery To Memphis,’ and what makes it work as well as it does, is an appreciation of the long haul effort of the movement as a whole, one that was often trying and discouraging, but found true leadership in MLK who at least publicly, never doubted the course of their actions, or where he stood.
4. To look at other causes championed by Martin Luther King Jr.
‘Montgomery To Memphis’ contains an intermission—included on the DVD set with the movie spread over two discs—and it arrives just after the March On Washington. Putting the pause there is not a coincidence, as the second half of the movie finds MLK continuing to fight for racial equality, but also taking other other issues too. Notably, he begins to focus on the intersection of race and class, and the rate of poverty among African Americans, along with the opportunities afford to them (or not) to rise out of that pattern, in part supported by institutional structures. As as the Vietnam War ramped up, MLK took a controversial position against the war as well, and ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ details those portions of his history with the kind of in depth detail they don’t often get.
5. To witness one of the most important political, social and humanitarian figures in contemporary history.
Simply put, ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ is a thorough, comprehensive, exhaustive (and yes, exhausting), fascinating, powerful and moving tribute to one of great men of the past 100 years, and a document of a troubled time in American’s not too far distant past. Martin Luther King Jr.’s place in history is already solidified, but this documentary makes the case (even though it doesn’t have to be made). Present at some of the most crucial struggles of the Civil Rights movement, an advocate for equality, pacifism and brotherly love, ‘Montgomery To Memphis’ is an inspirational look at change wrought through the conviction of ideals, rather than the blunt force of weapons, and the person who defined an era and made history many times over.
“King: A Film Record..Montgomery To Memphis” plays in select theaters on August 28th, details can be found here. The movie is also available right now on a 2-disc DVD via Kino Lorber.