In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality. —Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
In most faith traditions, there are two discernibly separate strands: the outward facing, community oriented ministers, priests, rabbis, mullahs and other leaders, and the contemplatives, the mystics, monks, bodhisattvas, hermits. Every now and then you get someone like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was both. King was not a politician, though he profoundly influenced the politics of his generation. Though he is sometimes referred to as the “final” Founding Father of the United States, he was not, at heart, a statesman. He was first, foremost and always a minister—one with a powerful, almost mesmerizing ability to sway people with words and who was unusually willing to walk as well as talk, and I mean that both literally and figuratively—the man donated the entirety of his Nobel Peace Prize to other civil rights activists.
Today is the 50th anniversary of his murder in Memphis, Tenn, in remembrance of which Paramount Network/BET and award-winning producer Derik Murray are premiering a new documentary on his life and legacy. I Am MLK Jr tells the story and celebrates the life of this American icon in the context of contemporary civil rights politics.
King is perhaps one of the most-studied, most-documented, most oft-quoted Americans of the 20th century, and still there have been significant failures to connect the dots or to tell the whole story of his life. This film takes a pretty damn good stab at that, connecting King’s civil rights leadership in Montgomery and Birmingham to things that are happening now, some of which are broadly acknowledged to be attitudes and levels of discourse King would have been unlikely to countenance. As Van Jones says, “Much of politics today is about calling people out… King was about calling people up.” (Try to imagine an eye-rolling “I just can’t anymore” coming out of King’s mouth every time someone disagreed with him. He was tirelessly inclusive no matter how many times he was beaten, hosed, or imprisoned.)
Murray’s documentary builds a pretty solid bridge between the King of elementary school social studies texts and the actual man. It discusses the way his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963 tends to take a couple of paragraphs out of a far, far more expansive treatise on the Constitution of the United States. King is shown seamlessly hybridizing the Lincoln Memorial and his natural habitat, the pulpit of a church. That speech was both a sermon and a stern referendum on the state of the republic, and it’s visually captured very powerfully here, intercut with a multitude of contemporary voices, both older men and women who were there, and younger people who have only seen film footage or read about it in books. (“You did a good job,” were reportedly the words President Kennedy offered in the White House when the speakers were invited to the Oval Office. I guess that’s one way of putting it. A 32-year-old man had just given one of the most important and most beautifully rendered speeches of the century; yeah, he did a pretty good job.)
I Am MLK Jr. features interviews with civil rights-era activists including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as contemporary writers, activists and influencers in sports, entertainment and media (Jones, Carmelo Anthony, Nick Cannon, Shaun King, Malcolm Jenkins) and more. Rich in archival footage and cast with a diverse array of commentators, the film is a wonderful mosaic of past and present, word and image, artfully shot and filled with wonderful vocal performances. I really appreciate the choice to intersperse the narrative with gospel choirs—it’s a lovely underscoring of what MLK’s story is largely about, which is the power of the human voice raised in a spirit of truth.
I Am MLK Jr. is more than a biographical documentary: It is equally about the issues facing Dr. King that we still face today. From Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, King’s story stretches far past the end of his lifetime, and the film delves into contemporary examples: Ferguson, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., and the “take a knee” movement against police brutality. Yes, some things got better and some even stayed better, relatively speaking. A disturbing amount of argument and violence is ongoing over things that really haven’t changed at all, and this is where the film correctly suggests we must turn our eyes. Celebrating King’s life and work are easy. But honoring his legacy means doing a lot more of that work.
It almost beggars belief that at the time of his assassination King was only 39 years old. Some people—not nearly enough of them—seem to possess a kind of ageless wisdom, and a rare few also have the oratory power to convey it to others. It’s hard to imagine what might have happened if we’d had him with us for the last 50 years. Maybe we’d be exactly where we are now, but I’d like to imagine the level of discourse around this country’s thorny, angry, fearful and dispiriting handling of racial equality and civil liberty would at least be a little higher.
I Am MLK Jr. airs tonight at 9 p.m. on the Paramount Network and BET.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.