Citizen King

Dir: Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, 2004. Documentary.
Citizen King

The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.

The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.

Citizen King really concentrates on King’s later years, and on his failures as well as his victories. It begins with King already reaching his iconic stage with his arrest in Birmingham, the march on Washington, D.C., and his feud with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But what is most interesting is what he did after President Johnson finally got his Civil Rights Bill passed and King won the Noble Peace Prize...King got radical.

As much of the movement begins to be dominated by SNIC leadership, the term “Black Power” emerges. King’s non-violent message is rejected in Los Angeles after the Watts riots. He takes his campaign for peace from the South to the North. He moved to the Chicago ghetto to fight against housing discrimination. The violent reaction from whites in Chicago is absolutely frightening (they throw bottles and firecrackers at him). Interestingly, he is also unwelcome in Chicago by other black leaders who feel threatened by his presence on their turf.

Though his involvement in the Poor People's Campaign is controversial, it’s when he speaks out against the Vietnam War that things get really dicey for King and the entire evolving Civil Rights Movement. It was one thing for American institutions to allow him to shine a light on Southern racists, but when he started to fight the American war machine, even many of his allies started to get out of gunshot range of him.

The film really emphasizes the danger King was always in and the heavy burden the man had to carry on his shoulders. Now he may be remembered as a postage stamp or a holiday, but he was a man, flawed and sometimes filled with fear and self doubt. And he grew with the times. As the '60s changed and got more violent, he tried to stay relevant and keep his message of peace alive. This is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand that very turbulent decade and King's massive role in it.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 16, 2010 2:09pm
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