“Everything you thought you knew about Martin Luther King Jr. is wrong,” says Trey Ellis, producer of the upcoming HBO documentary on King’s final 18 months of life, titled King in the Wilderness. The title of the documentary, which premiered at Sundance, is fitting considering that the civil rights activist’s final chapter found him dealing with a different set of issues that color him outside the lines of the “I Have a Dream” speech he’s been boxed into ever since his death. “Everything is wrong,” Ellis continues. “Thinking that he was safe when he was dangerous, or he was calm when he was full [of] fire. We took everything we knew and turned it on its head.”
Many-times Emmy Award-winning director Peter Kunhardt (PBS’ Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates; JFK: In His Own Words; Jim: The James Foley Story) crafted a narrative that brought together the likes of Andrew Young, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson and others to talk about the King we didn’t know. The one who was more than a singular speech or a bus boycott.
King in the Wilderness presents MLK Jr. as a multidimensional individual who took up many causes toward the end of his life, and the consequences that ultimately came with it. It’s timely considering that April 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
And in that time, an entire generation has seen King’s crusade compartmentalized into something that’s nonthreatening but completely lacks the totality of the challenges the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference faced throughout his adult life.
“We went through every news report that was made on TV from 1968 to 2016, and every single one of them portrayed him simply as the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Kunhardt tells The Root of what the motivation was to create this documentary. “That kind of drumming into the nation’s consciousness turned him into a wooden figure.”
Although films like Selma and other documentaries have done an exceptional job of painting the late leader as a human being rather than a static figure of activism, King in the Wilderness fills in the blanks between the Selma, Ala., voting-rights movement in 1965 and his earth-shattering assassination in 1968.
Weaving in archived footage from this era with recollections from those close to him, we gain a better understanding of who King was and what he was dealing with before his death. There was a King who traveled up North to Chicago and challenged poverty, police brutality, housing, unemployment, education and the Vietnam War. What King initially thought to be a Southern issue drilled him with a sobering reality when he was met with resistance from what was thought to be a more liberal part of America.
“When he protested in Chicago, and the hatred he received from the North was uglier than what he received down South, it made him realize that this wasn’t a Southern problem, it was a national problem,” Kunhardt explains. And the footage that is shown throughout the film presents a King who is being worn down by the seemingly insurmountable task he’d taken on more than a decade earlier.
It’s a troubling but thoughtful portrayal of King that has yet to be presented in this medium. Although there are sections of the documentary that drag a bit, it remains a fascinating and haunting look at King as he marched toward his final breath.
“I don’t think anybody understands what happened in the final years of Dr. King’s life,” says Andrew Young in the film. “Everybody is trying to figure it out politically or economically, and it was a spiritual phenomenon that I’m just beginning to realize. We didn’t know what we were doing. As brilliant as Dr. King was, there wasn’t a single thing that went ... the way we planned it.”
The spontaneity of King’s activism is captured well in King in the Wilderness as the civil rights leader takes on multiple challenges that stretched beyond race while the world around him was changing. It’s clear that he’s unsure of exactly how to approach a world that is slowly shifting, but he does the only thing he knows how to do: press forward.
To see a pre-Black Panther Stokely Carmichael leading a march with King in 1966 before he gave up on the nonviolent approach is fascinating because you can see King’s approach bursting at the seams as an interviewer speaks to them.
With Malcolm X’s death in 1965, it was more and more challenging for MLK to preach a turn-the-other-cheek philosophy, considering that the stakes were higher. Carmichael—who served as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—recognized that the approach needed to change, while King seemed to struggle with the idea.
It was no longer about getting brutalized by those who opposed his views; it was about losing one’s life. And there’s no more chilling footage of this than the one included in this documentary where what sounds like a gunshot rings out and King is visibly shaken by the possibility that a bullet could have his name on it.
Fortunately, it isn’t all doom and gloom, and the 19 subjects interviewed for the documentary all paint King as an individual with charisma and a charming sense of humor. Young’s recollection of King improvising fake eulogies with tongue-in-cheek jokes about the individual being eulogized is among the highlights, along with several other details outlined in the film.
But, ultimately, this is a film that captures a haunted King who is, quite literally, staring death in the face.
The weight of King’s crusade became a cross that was almost too heavy to bear, and King in the Wilderness finds the civil rights activist in uncharted territory that has often been overlooked.
For the most part, King’s stance against the Vietnam War and the consequences of his actions have gone undocumented. But King in the Wilderness goes into great detail about how he upset President Lyndon Johnson, which led FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to ramp up his hostile attempts to take down King.
“When we look at this period, he really revealed himself as a man and not an icon,” Kunhardt says. “He felt very alone and questioned himself whether he had gone too far. He answered himself and stuck to his guns in an attempt to change the course of history even though he knew his life was in danger.”
And then there’s the footage after MLK’s death, which is just as harrowing as you can imagine. To see his father crumble in front of his son’s coffin, or civil rights leader Xernona Clayton recalling how she took it upon herself to try to fix the mortician’s dreadful work by using her own powder compact during King’s open casket at Spelman College, is gut-wrenching but necessary.
It’s an eloquent and eye-opening portrayal of a man about whom most of us thought we knew everything. But with these new dimensions that are added, coupled with the current state of America, King in the Wilderness feels more timely than ever.