It’s been fifty-years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated leaving an unfulfilled dream, a blueprint for humanity, a turbulent country, and a furious race of people behind. In these past five decades, Dr. King has been immortalized; hoisted up as an almost mythical being – a martyr of the Civil Right’s Movement. Though history has painted Dr. King in a certain light, his closest friends and allies haven’t forgotten the last few years of his life – years that were full of confliction and uncertainty.
In his searing HBO film, King in the Wilderness director Peter Kunhardt chronicles the last few years of the Civil Right’s pioneer’s life – a time where even his beliefs and doctrine toward peace and non-violence were tested. A week before the film’s premiere I chatted with novelist, screenwriter, and professor Trey Ellis who served as an executive producer and interviewer for the project. For Ellis, it was essential to look back at Dr. King’s life and legacy through the memories of those who stood by his side day after day. King in the Wilderness gives an alternative view of a man who stood in the midst of an increasingly unstable country, rallying for the end of racism, war, and poverty.
Ellis had been yearning for a project on Dr. King’s life for some time, so when he heard that Kuhardt was putting something together at HBO, he jumped at the chance to get involved. “I talked to HBO a long time ago, but then around January of 2017 Peter approached me about this new take on Dr. King to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination,” Ellis explained. “We all decided that the later King, King in the Wilderness was the least told and also the most important for what we’re going through today. So I was really excited, to come on board to do most of the interviews. Taylor (Branch) interviewed Harry Belafonte, Andy Young, and Reverend C.T. Vivian and I had the pleasure of interviewing the rest of them. We spent a year traveling around the country talking to real-life heroes for two to four hours at a time. Some of them were heroes that I knew, like John Lewis, or Jesse Jackson and others like Cleveland Sellers or Bernard Lafayette were people that I’d never heard of before, but once I got to speak with them, I was just so amazed by their strength.”
Dr. King was killed in Memphis fifty years ago, but for many of his close friends – especially those who were present, the wounds are still very fresh. Ellis was acutely aware of this as he asked his interview subjects to chronicle Dr. King’s final three years. “These are people for whom the death of Dr. King wasn’t just a political act, it was really personal to them,” Ellis stressed. “Of course I had to be very respectful of that. I would talk to them first generally about their happy moments and memories of Dr. King and what they wanted people who didn’t know him, to take away and remember about him. Then once I got comfortable with them, and if they felt they were up for it, I asked them to walk us through their last memories of him. People like Jesse Jackson and others, they’ve kinda told that story … or thought about that story many, many, many times, but to get them at this late stage in their lives to talk at length about such a dark period I think was really emotional for all of us.”
King in the Wilderness is so astonishing because much of the audio, footage, and photographs in the film have never been seen before. “Now that was amazing,” Ellis exclaimed. “Peter watched all the news footage and just waded through hours and hours of footage, and then Jill Cowan our researcher and Chris Chuang, the writer were really super exhaustive in their research. That type of footage has just been incredible. We’re just so lucky to find it, especially the Chicago marches. There was a lot of TV film footage, but they didn’t even develop it. Therefore we have a lot of really pristine, never seen before footage of those Chicago riots. I was really pleased to have been able to contribute to the film by doing these interviews, but I think the archival footage and the way it’s laid out contribute so much to the success of the film.”
A great deal of King in the Wilderness focuses on Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael’s relationship. The men marched side by side though they often had deeply conflicting views on how to move forward in the fight for equal rights. Dr. King’s friendship with Carmichael is something we don’t often see or hear about, which is why it was so important to highlight. “King … he was a little older than the Black power people, but he really welcomed them,” Ellis explained. “Cleveland Sellers talked about how close he was with King, about how Dr. King married him and helped him when the when the draft board came after him. King understood how challenging non-violence was and how it wasn’t for everybody. He understood the counter-arguments, and he was really patient. He and Stokely and Cleveland would talk hours into the night and not in a heated way, but really they got very, very close. I think the more that they discussed, the closer they got even though they didn’t agree on the tactics.”
Despite his legacy, King in the Wilderness suggests that we aren’t remembering Dr. King nor honoring him the way that he intended. “That’s the most important part of this film,” Ellis reflected. “I think the day before (Dr. King) died he was never less popular among Black people — many of whom saw him as a sell-out. White people saw him as a communist; even his inner circle thought he’d lost his way. But the moment he was killed, everybody seemed to want a piece of his legacy. We’re living in that kind of world today; we wondered what he’d have done if he lived. Well, he lived for three years past all of the big events that we remember him for. So we don’t have to wonder what he would’ve done. He would’ve kept doing the work. I think that’s the strongest part of the film — reclaiming King in his own words and the words of the people who knew him best. So many people had twisted his words.”
As we look at our current political climate, it is easy to see how much progress has slowed, and how much farther we still need to go as a people and as a society. However, Ellis suggests that we expand our view. “I think it’s complicated because we have and we haven’t progressed,” he reflected. “King had big dreams, but I don’t know if he could’ve dreamt up the election of Obama. That seemed even beyond the realm of possibility. But on the other hand, a couple of years later to have Charlottesville and white supremacists rise up again, I think that is not so surprising. I think in some ways we’ve come lightyears, and in other ways, we haven’t moved very far at all.”
In his final three years, Dr, King focused not just on race, but also on the raging war in Vietnam, and the cruel effects of poverty. All three of these issues still deeply affect us today. “They’re all linked,” Ellis explained. “(Dr. King) would always talk about these triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. I think you have to fight them all at the same time. That poverty affects everybody — but racism — it’s a scapegoat especially to divide poor whites and poor Blacks. Militarism is used to distract us from these two other issues, so I think that they’re all connected.”
Using the blueprint that Dr. King left behind, younger generations are rising up, and leading movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives. Considering our present time and the burden that falls on our leaders, the world may never know anyone else like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “(Dr. King) certainly suffered under the weight,” Ellis explained. “Diane Nash, who is a fantastic woman and a legend in her own right talks about the need for us, all people, regardless of color, to not to hide behind leaders. We have to become our own leaders. I think that we’re in a moment now where we can’t wait for someone to save us from Trump and the rise of the right. We have to take it into our own hands. The way that those school children in the wake of the Parkland shooting didn’t wait for someone to come and say, ‘Hey, let’s fix this.’ They went out into the streets themselves. The Women’s March; it was loosely organized, people just put out the call and people answered the call. I think we’re in a world where we all have to move forward and we all have to be leaders.”
King in the Wilderness premieres Monday, April 2nd at 8 PM ET on HBO.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami