`King' is rich with in-depth reflections

January 19, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Citizen King, Orlando Bagwell's poignant and stirring PBS documentary about the last five years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, is not afraid to get personal. And that's one of the ways it manages to rescue the man from myth and bring him back to life on-screen.

The process starts with the very first frame, showing Coretta Scott King during an interview with CBS correspondent Mike Wallace in December 1968, six months after her husband's death.

"Christmas will be sad for us, as it will for many people, I think," she begins, as the camera moves in so close that her face fills the entire screen. "But it doesn't mean we will bathe in our grief."

The camera finds and then locks onto a dignity and sorrow etched in her eyes that will remind many viewers of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her husband's death in 1963.

"A time like this can cause many people to really reflect on the deeper meaning of Christmas or any occasion," she continues. "I remember Easter 1963, when my husband was jailed in Birmingham."

On the word "Birmingham," the screen fills with familiar newsreel images of a handcuffed King being led into jail.

"I had just had my fourth child and was still confined to my house," Mrs. King says in voiceover. "He went to jail on Good Friday, and I was very depressed. But somehow that was the most meaningful Easter that I ever experienced, because while Easter is a time of suffering, it can be creative suffering. If we think of my husband's life and death in those terms, we won't be so sad. We will be hopeful, because in death there is hope of redemption."

It's a brilliant opening in so many ways. There is the humanizing aspect of a wife talking about her husband and such intimate matters as childbirth and depression. That private sense of the Kings is then sagely juxtaposed against the very public, indeed iconic, newsreel images of King being led into the Birmingham jail.

But, as much as those newsreel images evoke the 1960s and the civil rights era, it is that lingering look of the young widow's face lined by an unnatural grief that brings the turbulent era of protest marches, riots and assassinations back with such a shock.

For some viewers, the greatest shock of Citizen King will be the discovery of how much they don't know about the man, especially the daring decision he made in 1963 shortly after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and the perilous journey he undertook as a result. Those last five years during which King embraced causes beyond the civil rights movement - protests against the war in Vietnam and a campaign aimed at helping the poor - are the focus of Citizen King, and they make for great drama.

The film meticulously tracks King from the highs of the March on Washington and his trip to Sweden to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, to the dangerous and dark nights of the soul that he encountered once he dared to challenge the government on the Vietnam War and a staggering poverty in this land of plenty.

As David Halberstam, one of the journalists who covered King during this period, puts it in the film, "He went from being someone invited to the White House on his way back from the Nobel Prize, to President Johnson referring to him - and you'll have to pardon the language - as `that [expletive] preacher.'"

Even though we all know how it will end on that motel balcony in Memphis, King's resolute march toward that moment is gripping and illuminating. Beyond the adroit use of archival images, Bagwell and co-producer W. Noland Walker also bring together a collection of voices from the era not seen on-screen since Eyes on the Prize, the 1987 civil rights series for which Bagwell won two Peabody Awards.

In addition to journalists such as Halberstam, the film includes such aides as Andrew Young and Roger Wilkins, along with historians such as Taylor Branch. The aides offer personal and intimate moments, like a silly pillow fight King enjoyed with them moments before his assassination. Branch and the journalists keep the historical narrative of the film on track. The combination of testimony and analysis is superb.

With a perfect symmetry, Citizen King returns to Mrs. King for its closing.

"My husband often told our children that if a man had nothing worth dying for, then he wasn't fit to live," she says. "He knew this was a sick society, and he struggled with every ounce of his energy to save it."

Citizen King captures this less widely remembered King and preserves him for future generations. It's a compelling argument that we really are living in a golden age of television documentaries.

Citizen King

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: The last great march of King's life, movingly told.

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