There are only two things even remotely amiss with “MLK: The Assassination Tapes,” a highly unsettling trip back in time that premieres Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel, 43 years and a day after the beginning of the sanitation workers strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tenn., and his death. And they are small things at that.
First, there is the slightly misleading title, which seems to imply a single cache of hitherto unsuspected, clandestinely recorded or revealing documents. Technically, there are tapes here that were not made public, from President Lyndon B. Johnson at the higher end of the ladder to squad car chatter at the lower. But the filmmakers quilt together a wealth of primary materials, many unseen or unheard since 1968, from a great many sources — albeit much of it already gathered for them at the University of Memphis.
Second, there is the score, which at times takes the film out of the reality it otherwise so effectively creates, or re-creates. I don’t need music to tell me that King’s last sermon — the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, a monument of American literature delivered on the eve of his assassination — is moving. I only need the speech.
Producer Tom Jennings repeats the goals and methods (and part of the title) of his earlier “The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination,” which ran in 2009 on the National Geographic Channel. Relying exclusively on archival films, photographs and recordings, while eschewing subsequent reminiscences and scholarly perspective, it does not float above the fray but sets you down into it, into the place and the time, in order to make you experience those days as they happened, as though they’re happening fresh — to forget what you know, in a way, and to feel. I have seen this ground covered in many, many documentary films, but I felt here that I was walking it for the first time.
By eliminating perspective, by collapsing distance, “The Assassination Tapes” brings what in other tellings have appeared remote events into close proximity. You feel them all bound up with each other, not marching along in an orderly fashion, as the hindsight-seen facts of history can do, but tripping over one another in a headlong rush.
There is much more to know about these days than what “The Assassination Tapes” has to tell — it runs just an hour, for one thing — and it incorporates only the testimony and the judgments of the moment, from the weeks before the murder through the days after. The later fate of the convicted killer, James Earl Ray, for example, is abandoned to a future this film doesn’t cover. That doesn’t strike me as a failing, however, but as focus. There are plenty of places to go to learn more.
One other thing Jennings does right: Apart from some cropping to suit the currently popular aspect ratio, he does not stretch and distort these images to fit a wider screen, as so many documentary filmmakers, who should know better, do nowadays. I grant extra credit for that, but “MLK” already gets an A.
MLK: The Assassination Tapes infobox 2/12/12
‘MLK: The Assassination Tapes’
Where: The Smithsonian Channel
When: 6 and 9 p.m.
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)