‘MLK: A Call to Conscience’ displays a more radical Martin Luther King Jr.
Toward the end of a mostly compelling and occasionally moving new documentary, Cornel West does his best to puncture the image of a benign and nonconfrontational Martin Luther King Jr.
West rejects what he calls the “Santa Clausification” of King, fuzzy myth-making that the African American scholar says is “one of the ways in which you defang and domesticate people who are on fire for justice.”
“MLK: A Call to Conscience” works best when it tends to the words of the provocative West -- revealing a King who was both more troubled, more radical and, yes, even more courageous than standard hagiography typically has allowed.
The documentary, airing at 8 p.m. Wednesday on KCET, delivers a worthy glimpse of the feeling, thinking and struggling King, a year before the end of his life.
The program would have been even more successful had it probed deeper into King’s psychological and political challenges from both left and right and tossed aside some diversions, particularly an off-target attempt to hold President Obama accountable to the King legacy.
Still, there’s much to learn and admire in executive producer and host Tavis Smiley’s effort. In the second of four documentaries that take him away from his regular PBS talk show, Smiley wisely reexamines one of King’s speeches not favored in YouTube mashups and glowing celebrations of the ‘60s.
An address King called “Beyond Vietnam” has been judged by historians and King allies (who carry much of the narrative here) as his most audacious, challenging not only the Vietnam War but what King believed was a heavy-handed foreign policy and a skewed domestic agenda.
Smiley reports that King’s already strained relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, his onetime civil rights ally, became “fractured beyond repair” after he delivered the speech on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City.
One year to the day later, King would be shot down at a motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers. Smiley and King’s associates from that time -- including Harry Belafonte and Marian Wright Edelman -- describe how he decided to speak out despite tremendous pressure not to stray from economic and social issues on U.S. soil.
The minister looked sad and troubled that night in the standing-room-only church. He told the crowd that “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony.” But he said that “my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
It had become difficult for King to answer young people who asked whether his admonitions of nonviolence extended to foreign affairs.
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,” King said, in the most controversial line of the 45-minute address, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.”
It’s hard for us now to reconcile that more confrontational King with the King who is now embraced even by personalities on Fox News.
The speech included a graphic description of the horror-scape of combat, the minister saying America suffered one casualty for every 20 of the Vietnamese. He claimed the U.S. had “killed a million of them, mostly children.”
King railed against a “deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long” and suggested sympathy for “a revolutionary government” even if it included “some communists.”
Such unsparing and sometimes hyperbolic assessments of Johnson’s war -- not to mention King’s harsh words about the evils of capitalism -- exploded like a land mine with the American people and media. But most of those vivid passages did not make the final cut of “MLK: A Call to Conscience,” which would have done more than a platoon of talking heads to blow away the mythological cloud.
Smiley’s documentary leaves no doubt, though, about the influence of King’s words. A once largely fawning press wrote dozens of angry editorials. Life magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
It’s not surprising that Smiley would try to bring a contemporary slant to the story. But an attempt to conjure up a slight by Obama (the host claims that Obama implied in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech “that the current climate of terror outstrips what Dr. King and his generation faced”) seems contrived.
Likewise, it’s dandy that all these decades later King ally Tony Bennett continues to abhor war and violence. But the crooner’s cameo doesn’t add much to our understanding of King.
It’s left to Princeton’s endlessly plain-spoken professor West, eyes dancing, to remind that Obama and King have different roles.
“I think they’re in different lanes and they have very different callings,” West said. “The latter is a prophet, the former is a politician.”
Smiley’s documentary works best and clarifies most when it acknowledges King as human, even more courageous for rising above his doubts.
His acolyte and onetime aide, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, tells us: “There’s that tension between politician and prophet. And that’s a real tension.”
(Full disclosure: I recently did a video commentary for KCET’s “SoCal Connected.”)
* General Manager Ruth Seymour of KCRW-FM (89.9) told me last year she didn’t think much of Arbitron’s new Portable People Meter. The meters counted just 289,000 weekly listeners for KCRW in August, well behind another public-radio fixture, KPCC-FM (89.3), which had 549,000. Though Seymour has retired, she owes me a “toldya.” The most recent Arbitron report puts KCRW at 514,000 weekly listeners, right on the tail of KPCC’s 544,000.
* Those giant Internet sinkholes demand to be filled. That at least partly explains why no fewer than six news outlets made sport Tuesday of U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, whose message for Passover included the words “as we break bread.” SFGate (a.k.a. the San Francisco Chronicle) and political reporter Carla Marinucci noted that the flight of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery is “also known as the ‘Festival of the Unleavened Bread.’ ” That would be matzo, Carly.
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