Judge Victor Valdivia is tired of History Channel shows with pointless celebrity interviews, although he is curious to hear Heidi Montag's thoughts on the Tet Offensive.
Go Beyond the Dream to Discover the Man
That would indeed be an interesting approach to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Too bad this DVD not only doesn't discover the man, it doesn't even go beyond the surface.
Facts of the Case
King uses archival footage and interviews to tell the story of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From his days as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham to his rise as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, this documentary follows King's life and career until his tragic assassination in 1968.
At one point in King, Public Enemy's Chuck D, one of the many celebrities who are asked to comment on the importance of King's legacy, makes a bold statement. It's a shame, he asserts, that the passage of time has turned King into a bloodless symbol that's safe for everyone to agree about. Such hagiography trivializes just how threatening King's cause really was to society and how truly radical his viewpoint really was in its day. This is a fascinating perspective, one that's almost never heard in the typical discussion of King that appears in the media. This DVD then spends 90 minutes completely ignoring Chuck's sentiment, and, by extension, proving it.
King is the safest, dullest, least provocative kind of documentary. Virtually nothing is said about King that anyone could possibly disagree with. There are no new insights into King, no viewpoints (except for Chuck's) that could challenge anyone's previously held beliefs about him. There's also nothing here that hasn't been stated thousands of times before, no story or file footage that hasn't been rehashed in countless other TV documentaries. King's life isn't examined in any depth whatsoever. His work for civil rights is viewed through a collection of clips and sound bites edited together. His personal life is related with a bare minimum of information. His son Martin Luther King III gives a few interesting tidbits about traveling with his father during a march, but otherwise what King was like as a person is left unexplained. Instead, King traffics in the exact same kind of sterile canonization that Chuck D rails against.
Indeed, King makes no effort to deal with King's work except in the most generalized terms. He fought racism and for that was branded an enemy. What King fails to do is put his struggle in much of a context. Anyone watching this would say that what he fought for seems like common sense by today's standards. There's the rub: Why was King so controversial in his lifetime, and why did he draw the ire of both the white establishment and even some black activists? You won't get a clue from this program. Nor does it even explain how King became the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement. How much of King's commitment to social and racial justice was related to his faith? How did his passion for philosophy (he once recited entire passages of Plato's The Republic from memory when locked in jail for civil disobedience) shape his theories on non-violence and political activism? Was there a defining moment in his life when he decided to devote his life to seeking justice? No one says. All they do say, over and over, is that he was a great man. Fine, but what was it that made him great? Was it his intellect? His charisma? His passion? All of these, and more?
Not only does King not explain King's virtues, it completely ignores his failings. Apart from a sentence or two, it doesn't mention his most noted flaw, his repeated infidelities. One interviewee brushes this off by claiming that "there isn't a Baptist Minister who doesn't have a mistress or two anyways," a statement so asinine that it's mind-boggling that it was left in the documentary. By removing King's complexity, King turns him into a distant icon that is impossible to see as human. This does him a huge disservice. Heroes aren't interesting because they're perfect; they're interesting because they're flawed human beings with human failings who still somehow find the courage to do what's right. A show that's supposed to "discover the man" shouldn't gloss over those parts that make the man complete.
It's hard to say how much Tom Brokaw, who hosts this show and conducted the interviews, had to do with its content, but it does share some of the same faults with Brokaw's previous History Channel program, 1968. Like 1968, King takes a complex subject and renders it into an inert museum piece, devoid of life or energy. Everything is safe and distant, and even the footage of blacks being brutalized by bigots is neutered through TV-friendly editing and repetition. Also like 1968, King wastes far too much time on pointless celebrity interviews. Big names like Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Bono, and John Legend show up to spout platitudes that sound nice and mean nothing. These interviews may have been surefire ratings grabbers but they add little to our knowledge or understanding of King.
The extra program included on the DVD highlights just how timid King really is. "Voices of Civil Rights" (44:16) is an episode of the Save Our History series that compiles interviews with various people, both black and white, who lived in the South during the civil rights era. With no narration or experts, the stories told by regular people, from schoolchildren to Klan members, are extraordinary. The show gives a clear picture of how racism affected literally every single aspect of daily life back then. Some of the stories are painful to listen to, but then they're meant to be. It's a much more informative show than King and viewers should definitely give it a look.
Both King and "Voices of Civil Rights" are presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. The older archive footage naturally looks rougher than the newer interviews. Both shows have a standard Dolby Digital stereo track.
If you know absolutely nothing (and it's hard to overstress this: absolutely nothing) about King or the civil rights movement, then you may find King mildly compelling. But really, apart from the "Voices of Civil Rights" program, it's hard to recommend this DVD even then. Anyone who is interested in King and civil rights should seek out the superb PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize for a far more detailed look at this story instead.
Guilty of doing nothing that hasn't been seen and heard many times before. Also, the court urges the History Channel to keep Tom Brokaw as far away from their other shows as possible.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Voices of Civil Rights
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