Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary more than forty years ago, and strangely enough you could see that scenario repeating if it were released today—it’s that riveting, that smart, that important. (And actually this Sunday, it is being “released” again for a single day at select theaters.)
Just how good is this chronicle of MLK’s work from his early efforts leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his final days in the spring of 1968? If I ran a school or even just a school library, then next February I’d have it running on continuous loop all month long. It’s about three hours long, so few would get bored even if the content weren’t so electrifying, enraging, and inspiring. And this is from someone who’s edited books on the civil rights movement, and felt that he “knew this stuff.” My guess is that this doc would have a similar effect on secondary students who feel they’ve re-learned Dr. King’s achievements every year since they can remember… and I’m also guessing it would work this same magic for history/social studies teachers who are looking to freshen up their approach to this curricular material.
All right, so what do I mean in terms of specifics? Well, King: A Filmed Record does all of these extraordinary things:
- Presents extended versions of events we usually know only from quick excerpts–images of fire hoses turned on peaceful demonstrators, for example. The effect, then, becomes nothing less than reclaiming history from the cliché that repeated media quoting can result in.
- Places the “greatest hits” in context. Yes, it’s pretty amazing when the first disc ends with the entire, unabridged “I Have a Dream” speech but part of what makes it so particularly powerful is that we’ve also seen all the events that led up to that shining moment.
- Clearly conveys a narrative without devices such as voice-over narration or talking heads: the impact is thus one of immediacy, of being the proverbial eye witness to history. And while it helps to have some degree of background knowledge about the subject before viewing, even viewers with a sketchy sense of MLK’s accomplishments will have all their “gaps” filled in by the time the film concludes.
- Shows not just King in action, but also his important colleagues, everyday followers, and even his adversaries. Yes, the doc features “King” in the title but this is not a biography of a single man but rather a record of an entire period of history.
- Provides “art,” not just “information.” By that I’m referring to the memorable interludes that appear throughout wherein Hollywood stars such James Earl Jones, Paul Newman, Ruby Dee, and Charlton Heston address the camera with impeccably delivered monologues taken from the writings of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and others. These segments were directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet of All About Eve and 12 Angry Men fame respectively. ‘Nuff said.
Want to check out King: A Filmed Record or screen it for students? The good news is that there’s a free 24-minute streaming version—all you need to do is sign up at Alive Mind Cinema to get access. You’ll also find free teaching resources there.
Or if you’d like a copy of the two-disc DVD set, Kino Lorber has generously provided several copies to SLJ readers. Here are the rules to get one:
1. Double-check that you live in the U.S. or Canada.
2. Leave a thoughtful comment here (through 11:59 pm ET Feb 19) or on any CTP post about documentaries. You can find a list of them here: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/tag/documentary/
3. If you don’t see your comment, just contact me via email or Twitter (see below).
4. I’ll email the five winners, who’ll then be asked to provide (via me) their mailing addresses to the distributor. If I don’t hear back from you within 48 hours of notification, I’ll simply draw another name.