'King: A Filmed Record' soars on high rhetoric, raw courage — and sanity

The AFI Silver celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year with free screenings of "King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis." It's never been more pertinent. This year, at this moment, it provides a tonic for the soul.

The movie delivers nuance and power simultaneously. Its central message is shaming, inspiring and stunning, all at once. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urges his supporters to fight "physical force" with "soul force," his eloquence and tempered zeal can still bring you to your feet.

The film contains no narration, only poetic passages read with fervor by artists and entertainers — including Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, and, yes, Charlton Heston — who marched with Dr. King to advance civil rights. Some critics have derided these interludes as stilted or superfluous, but they're fascinating and engulfingly nostalgic. They bring back an era when entertainers and politicians alike realized the power of "dignity" — of nobility and even exaltation.

The movie lives in its extraordinary footage of marches, church services and rallies. These precious pieces of history are all the more potent because they're presented without commentary. The moviemakers recognize that King's words provide enough charged meaning to illuminate the images.

He disdains any suggestion that he ratchet up his language to compete with the heated voices of white segregationists or his more militant rivals in the rising chorus of black power. And he refuses to separate himself as a human being from any segment of mankind.

King is never more profound, and never closer to Elizabethan poetry, than when he says, "We're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny." He goes on to say, more plainly, "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."

This three-hour record of King's career in the civil rights movement is a genuine spiritual epic — a chronicle of public action suffused with passion, reason and understanding. It's a one-of-a-kind film brought off with brilliance and conviction. You feel the creativity and commitment of the moviemakers in every frame. New York Times film critic Roger Greenspun said, "It raises reportage to the power of ritual, and for all its lapses it is a most solemnly beautiful film."

It was originally presented in theaters just once — on March 24, 1970 — with a then-exorbitant $5 ticket price; proceeds went to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Special Fund. The direction is often credited to Hollywood and New York luminaries Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But Lumet and Mankiewicz merely guided the performers through the interspersed readings. Ely Landau produced the film and compiled the images (with his associate, Richard Kaplan, and his editors, John Carter and Lora Hays).

Landau's simple mastery of his material leads to audiovisual epiphanies. On the soundtrack, King reads portions of his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," his explanation of why he's pushing for an end to segregation now. King brings his message home with images of domestic simplicity, describing "when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park … when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'" Landau sets off his words with images of African-American children whose eyes express sorrow and confusion and, most harrowing of all, a premature resignation. It's an unforgettable sequence.

Throughout, Landau's instincts are extraordinary — the way he shapes the film, it's a portrait of a charismatic leader and a magnetic social crusade. In one astonishing image after another, civil rights activists practice nonviolent protest and passive resistance even when they're the targets of firehoses, billy clubs and rocks.

The movie brings us close to their faces in ways that ignite new understanding. You can see the boycotters, marchers and demonstrators holding anger in check. And as the civil rights movement suffers grave losses and setbacks, they hold their heartbreak in check, too.

But what's exhilarating about the movie is its portrait of the potency they share when they aren't fighting back tears or battling the urge to curl a fist. "King: A Filmed Record" also captures implacable ardor and mass jubilation — the full range of emotions that erupt when people prove that right makes might, and not the other way around.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

"King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis" screens at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday at the AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Free. Call 301-495-6700 or go to afi.com/silver.

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