The crossroads of human rights thrives for a new generation in a riveting four-decades old indie documentary

By Bob Fisher. All images courtesy of Kino Lorber.

This past August marked the 50th anniversary of one of the seminal moments in America’s history, when at the conclusion of a civil rights march on Washington that was estimated to be a crowd of some 250,000, all demanding, with a single voice, the end of racial inequality, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put to words what all those present (and around the nation) were feeling in his mesmerizing “I Have A Dream Speech.”

Those not old enough to remember, or born after, those watershed times, can get an in-depth look of what made King a hero to so many people. Thanks to The Kino Lorber company, the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphs hit cinemas across the country late this past summer, and, more recently, in DVD format.

The film chronicles the historic role that King played in leading non-violent protests in the Civil Rights era. The independent documentary was produced by Ely Landau. Richard Kaplan was the associate producer in charge of production. Sidney Lumet and Joseph Mankowitz collaborated as co-authors of the script and directors. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was the music supervisor. Lora Hayes and John Carter edited the film.

Lumet and Mankowitz directed segments of the documentary, which was narrated by Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Clarence Williams III, Burt Lancaster, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and Anthony Quinn. The narrations include words from speeches made by King.

Lumet, Mankiewicz, Landau and Kaplan brought a diverse range of experience to the project. Mankiewicz earned four Oscars and had six other nominations and Lumet had four Academy Award nominations for writing and directing narrative films. Kaplan directed The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, a documentary nominated for an Academy Award in 1965. Landau was nominated for producing the King documentary.

They drew on a treasure chest of archived 35 mm newsreels and films from various other sources, including home movies. [Cinematographers who shot newsreels for cinemas and television during that era did not receive credits, even though they were members of what was then called The International Photographers Guild, and had a contract to shoot news film. Part of the motivation for switching from film to videotape for covering news was that it gave television networks and stations a legal excuse not to give cameramen union wages and benefits.] In addition to the historic protest marches, the documentary focuses on films taken at rallies and neighborhood church services, which revealed the educated statesman at the dawn of the movement he so famously led.

Martin Luther King was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia where his father was a minister at a Baptist church that served the African-American community. He earned an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a PhD from Boston University before following in his father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama.

King was married to Coretta Scott King. The first of their four children was born in 1955.  It was a time when restaurants, cinemas and virtually all public places were segregated and Negroes were denied equal rights in southern states.

The documentary begins with Reverend King addressing a large audience at his church a few days after Rosa Parks, an African-American, was arrested for not surrendering her seat on a public bus to a Caucasian passenger. He asks people to stand if they are willing to support a peaceful boycott of public busses in Montgomery, and everyone soon rises. History was made when the subsequent boycott received national attention.

The documentary includes a scene with King standing in front of a congregation at his church saying, “Let us fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace. Let us be sure that our hands are clean in this struggle. Let us never fight with falsehoods, violence, hate and malice… but always fight with love, so that when the day comes that the walls of segregation have completely crumbled in Montgomery, we will be able to live as brothers and sisters.”

There is also film of a Ku Klux Klan member in costume stating, “They want to pour white children and colored children into the melting pot of integration, out of which will come a conglomerated mongrel class of people.”

The boycott lasted for nine months until segregated seating on busses ended in Montgomery in November 1955. King played a pivotal role in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. He served as president of that organization, which organized peaceful protests, including the 1963 March in the nation’s capitol.

King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The following year, he organized and led a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The documentary includes footage from that historic march.  The film ends with the assassination of King in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.

King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis was originally released to more than 600 cinemas in the United States for a one night screening in 1970.

The documentary was selected for the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Foundation to archive for posterity at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in 1999. Kaplan helped guide the accurate restoration of the documentary by The Library of Congress in association with The Museum of Modern Art and the Ely Landau estate for the contemporary release.

Kaplan observes, “The wide release of the documentary is the fulfillment of my dream to make the film available to a new generation, as well as to all of those who have heard about the film, but have never been able to see it until now.”

Preservationist Milt Shefter observes: “The re-release of this historic documentary reminds us how important it is to preserve yesterday’s and today’s films for future generations. There are important lessons that contemporary and future audiences can learn while watching this film.”

Shefter and Andy Maltz, Director of the Science and Technology Council at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences co-authored The Digital Dilemma 2 report, which focuses on the state of the art of archiving independent narrative films and documentaries. The report was published by the Academy in 2012. It is available on-line on the Academy website at www.oscars.org/ttd2.