King (1978)

 

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In 1983, President Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law.  It was not until 2000 that all 50 states observed it, with the state of Arizona (including Senator John McCain) spending most of the 80s trying to avoid it, along with the remaining hardcore racists like Jesse Helms of North Carolina.  Black History Month, which has no official status, claimed February during the Bicentennial in 1976.  In a country where true heroes are hard to find, it is nearly impossible to find one who fits the description better than Martin Luther King.  Martyrdom was placed on him when he was murdered in 1968, but his legacy and intelligence in handling the seemingly unconquerable racial tensions in the United States have inspired generations of non-violent protestors.  His words apply everywhere and decades after his death, his accomplishments are still staggering and still vivid.  There is no doubt that Martin Luther King is easily in the small handful of top five most influential Americans, though revered far outside just cartographic boundaries.

King’s life, even with the shocking and reprehensible ending, is perfect for the American Miniseries.  Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred of King and investigations that attempted to portray King as a man with some very real human faults, which places him in the company of…everyone else, Martin Luther King is the very definition of an American hero: bold, vital, dedicated, pushing hard in the face of adversity.  Of the 87,263 American Miniseries about the Kennedys, all with their own take on which section of salacious details to show off, there is an undercurrent of disrespect in all of them.  There are internal villains (Joe Kennedy usually) and external villains (Hoover, Nixon, Onassis) who assure the stories have sizzle.

But, in 1978, fast on the heels of “Roots,” “King” is nothing but respectful.  This is a miniseries based on fact, celebrating the successes of the man without heavy-handed finger wagging, but certainly not ignoring the injustices against which he fought so valiantly.  This is 1978 and the miniseries had not yet opened itself up to every published bodice ripper and true crime sensationalism that would define it.  It was still just telling stories about American history, of public figures rather than private sins.  However, this is also not a documentary and should not be thought of as one.  The performances of Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson are remarkable, both as tributes to Dr. and Mrs. King, and as acting lessons.  The script and direction by Abby Mann not only guarantees “King” even more pedigree, but also intelligence, finding ways to keep it entertaining as well as proud.  But, as important as telling this vast story is the humanizing of Dr. King.  It is as big a theme as any for which he fought.

The movie starts in grainy black and white, as if what we are seeing is live news, which it easily could have been.  Martin Luther King is hurried into a car, so exhausted he can barely walk, in the middle of a protest that has turned into a riot, pitting the peaceful marching adherents of King and the looting vandals against each other and the police, who turn on all of them with massive force.  King is so depressed about this Memphis episode, he collapses in bed, while his loyal followers wonder how things got so out of control.

Southern leaders urge “taking a new look” at King, trying to pin everything on him as a rabble rouser, much to the chagrin of Bobby Kennedy (Cliff De Young).  Equally upset is Martin Luther King, Sr. (Ossie Davis), railing at Coretta that his son needs to fight back.  “I have a beautiful son and they are destroying him.  I knew they would,” he says in frustration, slamming the door.  There is no consoling King, who feels responsible for the mayhem and death resulting from the riot.  “Maybe we should let violence take its course…maybe it has to be,” he says dispiritedly to Coretta.

As good as “King” may be, it’s still a miniseries and it still insists on following some rules.  Like the inevitable flashback.  As King’s advisors snarl at each other, Coretta looks at her wall of pictures and wonders “how did it begin?”  Cue 1952, which is not quite the beginning, but if this went birth to death, it would would have needed months of air time!  This is when Martin, on the advice of a friend, calls Coretta at Boston and smoothly talks his way into a date.  Her girlfriend tells Coretta that Martin is a catch as his father is the pre-eminent minister in all of Atlanta, and Martin is studying to be a minister too.  “Oh, that’s all I need, a Baptist preacher!” Coretta scowls.  “It’s a pleasure just to watch you eat,” loquacious Martin tells her between colorful stories and staring at her already smitten.  Coretta, though shy, has a mind that is already ripe for Martin’s work, telling him of a concert she attended by Paul Robeson, a supposed Communist.  “Imagine missing a chance to see Paul Robeson because of his politics,” she says.  It’s interesting that politics and not race form her reason.  “I’m probably going to marry you,” Martin chirps on the ride home.  It’s obvious he is charmed by her, but he’s also immediately won over by her intelligence.  Their passions on difficult issues are similar, but come from very different world views and experiences.

King is not completely superhuman.  He delights in the attentions of other women, even while Coretta is in the room. She’s not upset, especially since he’s engaged to a woman in Atlanta.  “We hadn’t met yet,” he tells her, hinting that the engagement will disappear.  Martin keeps coming back to being a minister and getting Coretta on board to be a preacher’s wife.  He feels church is the centerpiece of change.  In discussing his congregation when he’s ready, he has it all worked out: “it has to be a large one, so it has an impact on the community and it has to be in the South…That’s where they need me the most.”  He even says, “I have no ambitions outside of being a pastor.  I enjoy pastoring.”  However, Coretta is in no way keen on the idea of living that life.  She has her own dreams, but that matters little to him.  “The last thing I need is an emancipated woman who wants to sing at the Metropolitan Opera Company.”  He apparently hasn’t learned tact yet.

Even worse is the first time Coretta meets MLK Sr.  She sits through a service where he goes name by name of congregants and asks why they haven’t donated more money.  He’s insistent that the only singing Coretta should do is in the choir, though she says she can sing in the choir and in the concert hall.  The elder King is not a pleasant man.  He tells Coretta his song gives away money to the needy, adding “he doesn’t understand that money is freedom.”  “It can also make you a slave,” Coretta calmly replies.  “He is a tyrant, but he is a lovable tyrant,” Martin tells Coretta after they live the harsh harangues of his father.  Martin brushes it off, saying he will not let his father “dominate” him and that his own plans don’t have to follow his father’s, but he loves him.

Mrs King seems delighted with Coretta, but her old goat husband, though giving his blessing, is still not convinced.  “I accept you because you are his choice.  I respect his opinion,” is his way of welcoming her to the family.

Rosa Parks is arrested and the local committee of black leaders urge a strike of the buses, but not putting their names on it, fearing what will happen.  Jack Corbin (Ernie Hudson) is furious.  He nominates Martin for president of the committee, because “you are one devil of a speaker!” but Martin is not convinced he’s the right choice (new to the area, Coretta having just given birth, etc.), but the committee agrees and he’s elected.  However, when explaining to Coretta what he wants to speak about, he starts to hit his stride.  He brings up Gandhi and “the power of unearned suffering and the power of nonviolence.”  However, he doesn’t think anyone will agree, that they will all want to “strike back.”

The first time Martin speaks, the place is packed, but he hasn’t written a speak.  Jack tells him to open his mouth and let God provide the words.  Martin is scared, but it’s exactly what happens and he has the congregants in his thrall before his first sentence is finished.  He’s fiery, he’s dramatic, he’s forceful, clever with wording and the excitement of his listeners feeds him further.  “We are not advocating violence,” he tells them, making sure they understand that is the method of organizations like the Klan.  “If we are wrong,” he thunders, using that phrase multiple times and ending it with “than so is” the Constitution and even God.  The mixture of emotion, religion, history and self-esteem has just worked magically for the first time.  He gets more standing ovations than a State of the Union address, but these are genuine.

When the Montgomery bus boycott is a success, Damon Lockwood (Al Freeman, Jr.) and Stanley Levinson (Steven Hill) show up.  They are not impressed.  “Ironic, isn’t it…that this hayseed has the power to move these people the way he does,” Lockwood says, with more than a dash of sarcasm.  “Are you sure that’s all he is?” Levinson asks.  He’s more impressed.  Lockwood admits not only does he not understand his own people, but he’s jealous of Dr. King.  He’s a historian who speaks at universities, but “can’t reach these people the way he can.”  He’s missing grassroots appeal that King has in abundance.  King is the spokesperson for the blacks in court to argue against changing the bus policies.  He’s denied by those claiming it’s law, which can’t be changed, by black leaders who don’t believe in his methods, by white leaders who think they are very enlightened, and by the local white clergy, one of whom tells him patronizingly to “lead his people to a glorious experience of Christian faith.”  Worst of all, King didn’t come off well, timorous and overly polite.  Or, as he tells Levinson, in order to be successful, “we have to squeeze the slave out of ourselves,” to alter the mindset of even the blacks that they are someone second-class citizens.

After this episode, the King house is bombed.  A white policeman says only Martin can stop the violence of blacks hell bent on retribution.  “So now you’re asking Dr. King for help?” Jack snarls.  He greets his followers on his bombed porch and begs everyone to put their weapons away and cease thoughts of violence.  The crowd is immediately mollified.

When Martin goes to the police station to free a jailed member of the group, he ends up arrested for absolutely no reason, fined “$10 plus costs” by a judge.”  “I’m not going to pay it,” Martin replies.  “I’m not going to pay a fine for an act I didn’t commit, nor for the brutal treatment I did not deserve,” he calmly replies.  Back to the jail cell he goes until he’s bailed out, not by Levinson, but most likely by the police who do not want any attention shined on them.  This spurs arrests all over the city for fake crimes.  Then the Montgomery bus company, after a year of revenue loss due to the strike, wants King and his followers to pay for it all!  The local leaders are undone by the Supreme Court, which rules bus segregation unconstitutional.

Martin boards a bus, with the driver noting it’s an honor to have him, and Coretta’s narration tells us Martin felt like “Columbus discovering America…that anything was possible.”  Lockwood and Levinson agree and tell him they intend to pull all of the various organizations, “except the NAACP” under Martin’s leadership, but he doesn’t want that power.  What’s he afraid of?  “My own shortcomings.  I’m also afraid that people will always expect me to pull rabbits out of a hat.”  This is an interesting answer because rarely in any story about King are any shortcomings discussed, but like any man, he had them.  And fear was very real.  This movement was brand new to this country.  But, the reply from smarmy Lockwood is chilling: “Don’t worry, we’ll tell you what to do.”

At a book signing, a woman stabs Martin in the chest.  At the hospital, Coretta is beside herself.  Asking to see her husband, Lockwood says, “don’t let him speak too much” and Levinson says, “he’s been asking for you all day.”  Jeez, we’re setting up Lockwood as the ultimate villain, aren’t we?  Giving orders to a devoted wife?  It’s Coretta who explains to him that the crazy woman stabbed him at God’s request, believing him the devil.  “So many lies,” he says faintly before falling asleep.

The attack and the pressure of being a leader, not to mention a trip to India where Nehru gives him the responsibility for the freedom of oppressed people everywhere, causes King to resign as pastor because he can’t devote enough time to their needs.

Where this miniseries errs is in its speed.  Thankfully, we are not going from birth to death, but there is so much ground to cover.  For instance, after the stabbing, the resignation seems to be undone, Dr King Sr. harangues his son for following a nonviolent course, Coretta wants to buy a beautiful home, but Martin buys a rundown hovel his bodyguard says can only be improved by blowing it up, and Martin worries about becoming part of the “black bourgeoise” when so many people are being taken advantage of.  These are the types of details that can be relegated to well-written lines here and there.

Next up is a department store that allows black people to eat in only one of its restaurants.  Martin shows up, everyone is all atwitter that he’s there, but the hostess still will not seat him.  A security guard shows up.  “I’m glad you’re here, they’re at it again,” the hostess says in annoyance.  The guard gives them a wonderfully generous 10 seconds to disperse, and then all are arrested.  All are released quickly, except Martin, on a series of ridiculous charges and Levenson reports, “they’ve sentenced him to six months hard labor on a Georgia chain gang.” He’s taken to the prison on a dirt road where he can be easily disposed of, with a snarling dog, in shackles, to be placed in solitary.  For traffic violations and other meaningless charges?

But, who should sweep into the story in 1959?  You guessed it, Senator John F. Kennedy (William Jordan).  He calls Coretta to add his support, and we next see Martin alighting a private plane.  Dr. King Sr. is eager to vote for JFK, but Levenson cautions, “he’s running a very tight election with Nixon.  He needs that black vote.  And he may not have done this out of the loftiest of motives.  There are times when the morally wise is also the politically expedient [sic].”

After a scene of brutality resulting from a Freedom Ride, the countries black leaders are summoned to the Oval Office where he Kennedy brothers (RFK is played by miniseries regular Cliff DeYoung, who also played JFK elsewhere) seem to be going back on campaign promises.  JFK is plays the smiling politician and Bobby a scowling hothead.  Martin sits quietly at first, realizing these two are not going to be of much help, but the eloquence of Philip Harrison (Roscoe Lee Browne) is fascinating.  He starts off by cutting the president off at the knees in reminding him “I’ve been in this office many times with many different men sitting in that chair” and proceeds to rave about Franklin Roosevelt, but Bobby roars about Freedom Riders barricaded in a church about which he can do nothing.  “Let them die,” Harrison says matter-of-factly, then building in mentioning bombings and deaths all over that go no further than the FBI before hitting Bobby in his most sensitive spot.  “You won’t do anything about any of that…because you are too afraid of a confrontation with J. Edgar Hoover!” he shouts.

Martin decides to go to that church in Montgomery, but there’s a short scene that is a wonderful touch: on the plane there, he has a serious attack of hiccups.  It’s a physical manifestation of his fear, not an emotion people associate with Dr. King, seen as the bravest of the brave (and he was, but again, as the miniseries takes ample time to remind us, he was also a man).  A crowd of howling angry whites outside the church are stunned into silence when King arrives, but once inside the church, their idiotic bravado returns as they demand he come out.  Bobby Kennedy orders federal marshals to the church to escort King and his followers out.

When Martin arrives home, he’s dismayed by the refinement Coretta has put into making their home warm and calm.  He says he can’t live there, but Coretta puts her foot down, telling him he will live there and it will be a sanctuary where their family can talk about everything but the weight on her husband’s shoulders.  “And get you shoes off the bed,” she chastises, finally getting him to crack a smile.

The murder of three students, two of them white, in Philadelphia, Mississippi is a setback for the movement, so King decides to go there, against the advice of everyone (except Lockwood, who sees the PR value in it).  Martin is warned he will be killed, that the local police and FBI were probably behind the murders and certainly will not provide any protection and Levenson thinks a meeting in DC will do more good.  No dice, it’s off to Philly, MS King goes.

A rabbi and a few white people are part of King’s group, as is Dr. Ralph Abernathy (Ernie Lee Banks), who leads them all in prayer.  The mob surrounding them needs only a spark to set them off.  The police even admit to the murders in a tongue-and-cheek fashion.  The furious mob shouts horrible epithets at them, hits some of King’s followers, all while the G-Men watch.  “They are taking notes.  All they ever do is take notes,” an aide remarks to Martin.  He decides to issue a statement about the FBI, which makes Lockwood unhappy.  “You cannot fight with Hoover.  Presidents are afraid to do it,” he argues, but Martin’s mind is made up.

We’ve danced around him long enough, it’s time to meet the most famous and detested national figure in the history of 20th Century America: J. Edgar Hoover (Dolph Sweet, in a brilliant casting move).  In his office, speaking to reporters, and against the advice of his aides, Hoover tells everyone, for the record, “Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the United States.”

I can’t think of a more perfect ending for this segment of the miniseries than that.  It is a harbinger of what’s to come and draws even more battle lines in an already crowded war.

Part Two rejoins the story in Birmingham, AL, April 3, 1963.  The city is run by one of the most notorious figures of the Civil Rights movement, Bull Connor (Kenneth McMillan).  King and company are showing maturation in their tactics.  Levenson knows Connor from years ago, Lockwood notes that “Birmingham is the most important city in the South.  If we can desegregate it using nonviolence, we can desegregate the entire South.”  King, however, wants to harness the power of television.  “Television is going to be the medium in which we’re going to bring this country face to face with itself,” he says slyly, a brilliant notion that shows how savvy he has become.

Doing what he does best, King opens his Birmingham salvo in church.  After a rousing introduction from his brother, Martin starts to speak.  A burly white man strides down the aisle without any fuss, walks up to King and decks him.  The crowd wants blood, but Martin stops them.  “Our movement is about understanding him, yes, even him,” he tells them as they take their seats again.  He blames racism for being all the Southern whites know, all they have been taught.

As the movement to integrate Birmingham gains speed, with constant arrests and Connor’s glee in that, the Kennedy brothers beg Martin to wait a few months, but he refuses.  “What are we going to to?” Bobby asks Jack.  “Same thing we always do.  Nothing.”

The city’s white clergy, from Catholic to Jewish, approach King and ask him to leave.  “We can deal with our own city,” they say, but this angers Martin more than anything.  His fellow clergymen are preaching about Jesus (well, not the Rabbi, one supposes), while letting these detestable crimes against humans continue unchecked.  “You are a man who preaches nonviolence who hopes for violence in his heart,” the Catholic priest says to him.  That’s an interesting statement because by this point in his quest, MLK certainly knew how much violence and death could result from the sit-ins, marches and other nonviolent tactics.

It’s time for one of the most shameful debacles in US history.  A large march in Birmingham has Connor using the entire police force and their truncheons on ready.  He’s asked where they can house everyone they will inevitably arrest as the jails are full.  Connor blithely tells them to corral everyone at the fairground, but “we won’t have anymore after today.”  That’s when the firemen and their hoses show up.

The archival footage of what happens next says it better than anyone writing about it.  As for Connor, he is proud of what he’s done, joking with reporters that maybe he should have a talk show, “a few laughs.” A second wave of marches approaches.  Children.  Connor insists on treating them the same, adding ferocious dogs to what a television audience can see.  Martin feels he has to join those arrested and does.  Coretta does not hear from him and when Bobby Kennedy calls her to say “we’re doing everything we can,” Coretta politely thanks him, but watching Tyson’s facial reactions, she fears it’s going to get even worse and Kennedy isn’t actually doing anything.  More meaningful is a call from JFK, more reassuring and offering her the option of calling him whenever she needs help or information.

The park sit-in continues even on Easter, when a police officer is asked if he will allow the group to at least go near the church to celebrate the holiday, the most sacred on the Christian calendar.  The white policeman is about to relent, or at least negotiate, but out comes Connor, charing like a beast, a one man hurricane ordering the hoses be turned on.  McMillan is superb here, all nerve endings and increasing madness as the police and firemen refuse.  The protestors are allowed to go to the church.  MLK is released from jail and the narration tells us he achieve the integration of the worst Southern town, but the fight is long from over.  “Birmingham became the Bunker Hill of the movement.”  Credit Abby Mann with that brilliant line, eight words that every American would understand (well, at least in the 60s, history lesson are ignored as I write this in 2014 and I would be shocked to find 10 out of 2000 randomly-selected people who understand that reference).

JFK takes to the TV audience to promise attention to integration, and man, does this piss off Hoover!  Through simple fear, he has the FBI scurrying to find any dirt on King, his family or his followers to discredit King so scandalously, the Kennedys will have to distance themselves from him.

Martin is summoned to the White House by the Kennedy brothers and Vice President Johnson (Warren Kemmerling) so they can pressure him to cancel his March on Washington.  They feel it will ruin their chances of getting any Civil Rights bills passed on Congress, about violence and about their own political careers.  When Bobby says it’s not time, but proof that even the worst timing can have a positive effect is on King’s side.  Dismissing Johnson, RFK insists Levenson be booted because Hoover has given proof he has ties to Communism.  Martin won’t hear of it, but Levenson is practical and knows it’s best, because “nothing must be allowed to hurt the movement.”  This scene is the most emotional and touching in the miniseries, not only beautifully written and directed, but acted with full heart.

August, 1963, 250,000 people descend on Washington and King earns his place as immortal with the “I Have a Dream” speech.  I don’t envy any actor who has to deliver one of the greatest speeches ever recorded, but Winfield does not actually copy King’s mannerisms or cadence, but reels off the speech as a great actor.  It’s kept to a small few minutes as one would hope every viewer knows it.  From there, it’s right to November 22 and the Kings are heartbroken along with the rest of the nation.  “This is the way I’m going to go,” he tells Coretta.  “I won’t reach my 40th birthday.”

Martin is summoned back to the White House, where the Machiavellian Johnson insists “we will do great things together,” though with some selfishness in being a Southerner who gets to accomplish it.  Martin, in the hospital with exhaustion, wins the Nobel Peace Prize.  Another wondrously spectacular scene follows, from the most unlikely of corners.  Hoover, no fan of King’s, sends out a giant batch of papers to everyone important except Bobby Kennedy, still Attorney General, with every scandalous piece of information he’s ever gathered on King through wiretaps and such.  Bobby is furious and demands they be retracted, but Hoover is implacable and has the upper hand: Bobby signed off on the wiretaps.  The juxtaposition between the wild truly horrified DeYoung and Sweet’s unflinching Hoover is another example of perfect writing.

And Mann keeps piling on the ace scenes.  MLK Sr., who has been a cranky old man, gathers his family and toasts to God for giving his family and the world Martin Luther King, a Nobel Prize Winner!  Ossie David hits it out of the park.  Topping even that is MLK’s mother (Frances Foster) who rises to apologize to her son for an incidence as a child where she tried to protect his feelings by blaming racism for losing him a prize and setting up very low expectations so he couldn’t be hurt.  Try not to cry during that toast!  But, Winfield is back in full control delivering King’s acceptance speech in Sweden.

Upon returning, King goes to Selma, Alabama to fight for voting rights.  Addressing the crowd, Martin tells them, “I can’t guarantee you won’t be beaten,” but that he will not stop fighting, he’ll escalate it to Governor Wallace, the legislature, marches “by the thousands” and even a person trip to the President.  “And if need be, we’ll go to jail by the thousands,” he assures them.  Indeed he does go to  Johnson, who cautions against an immediate Voting Rights Act since the Civil Rights Act just passed (strangely, it’s mentioned only in passing).  Johnson isn’t against King’s plan to march from Selma to Birmingham, but he won’t call in the marshals and he doesn’t think it’s big enough.  “You need something like Birmingham,” he tells King.  “But people died in Birmingham,” King reminds him.  Johnson has made his point silently.

The march is allowed for only 50 people, two-by-two, but Martin reminds his followers that it only applies to the highway of those 54 miles, not the other roads and anyone who wants to can meet them in Montgomery.  “It’s suicide,” his followers remind him, but he pushes ahead with the plans.  Coretta insists on going this time, having sat out the previous marches.  A disturbed Martin tells her he knows someone will die on the march.  “Why is it we need a human sacrifice for every gain that we make?” he wonders.

During the march, an unexpected bit of joy comes to the marches at night when Tony Bennett (playing himself) sings for Martin and the others, despite epithets hurled at him from whites along the route.  Three people are killed during the march, including a Detroit housewife who helps with food runs.  But, by the time the march reaches Birmingham, it’s 50,000 strong and even Governor Wallace  threatened them as they enter “the cradle of the Confederacy.”  King’s speech in Birmingham (although cluttered by a muttering man standing next to him representing the customs of asking and response preaching), ending with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is a masterstroke  and a perfect note for the end of the second portion of the miniseries.

Before I start the third and final portion of “King,” I want to stop and point out the wonderful music by Billy Goldenberg.  Long one of TV’s best at scoring (and still alive as I write this in 2014), his drum-heavy soundtrack adds suspense and importance to just the right moments.  The story itself is moving and emotional, but Goldenberg never simply panders to that.  In fact some of his melodies help create those moments, especially the ones where Mann keeps his dialogue to a minimum.

Martin considers leaving “the movement” for a few years, feeling it’s in capable hands, noting that “I’ve missed the birth of our last three children” (of four).  There is a precious little montage of a happy King family at the birthday party of one of the kids, silent black and white footage that shows Martin the man, enjoying the simple life.  Even his father is smiling.  “Martin never was able to accept a position as pastor.  There was Watts.  There was Vietnam,” Coretta says in narration.  There’s a new cynicism in his attitude, however.  Welcomed to Chicago, where even the local black politicians say that their housing policies for minorities are the best in the country, the Kings decide to live there, having his bodyguard rent a rundown nightmare of a place.  The super has no idea the Kings will be living there until Lockwood shows up with cameras and King has his family pose in front of the rotting walls.

It’s here King entertains Malcolm X (Dick Anthony Williams), who believes “appealing to the conscience” is not the best route to the aim of full integration.  Malcolm X snaps, “you still believe in the white man, don’t you?” to which King replies, “I have no choice but to believe in him.”  The argument is one who will never be won by either man, though Malcolm X is portrayed here as very anti-King.  “Are you still talking about Gandhi?  You are not Gandhi.  You’re a middle-class Southern preacher’s son,” Malcolm X.  His hatred of white men is too deep for King’s protestations of working with white men to achieve the goals (noting rationally that only 10% of the population is black, which seems low for the mid-60s).  “You don’t hate the white man.  You hate being black.  You can’t see beyond your own personal rejection,” King opines.  “This country respects violence,” Malcolm X retaliates, a nerve obviously hit.  The conversation ends worse than it started.  “At least we have one thing in common,” Malcolm X notes, “we’re both dead men. I love you.  You may not believe it, but I love you.  You are a glorious fool.”  Come on, television writing does not get better than this crackling tense conversation, whether it happened or not.

One thing Malcolm X did was include the North in his battleground.  The old cities of the former Confederacy were dying anyway, the racism to obvious and outlandish that it was nearly impossible to defend, which is part of the reason King was able to achieve record numbers of changes in such a short time.  Malcolm X wanted bigger change in bigger places by bigger people.  King only comes to realize this when he comes up against perhaps the greatest machine mayor in all of American history, Richard Daley (Patrick Hines).  Supportive of King and his initiatives, he also had a massive city to run and a massive electorate to please.  He offered concessions, but nothing was going to make him cave completely.  He reminds King “this is not Birmingham” and that the sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations would not work in his city.  Stated, but not too obviously, is Daley’s system of cronyism that kept him mayor for a very long time; those ties were unbreakable.  Sure, he offered better conditions to blacks, but not so much so that his friends and accomplices would be affected.

“I want to jump off a cliff,” Martin tells Levenson, the first time they have seen each other since Hoover forced King to fire him.  “I want to come out against Vietnam.”  Martin tries to apologize and they agree their friendship has never really ended.  Predictably, King Sr. is apoplectic hearing the news about King’s Vietnam news, saying black men don’t belong in politics.  “I’ve never thought of myself as just a black man,” his son replies.  But even King’s friends, predictably Lockwood among them, are horrified, as they feel it would jeopardize their relationship with LBJ.  “You can’t fight with the most powerful man in the world and win,” he bellows.  On May 16, 1966, he goes public against Vietnam, and the Justice Department kicks into high gear, releasing Hoover’s report again, forging documents about misappropriation of funds and tapes of his affairs with other women.  When she receives the tapes, without listening to them, Coretta yells around the room at the hidden microphones.  “Are you waiting to see if I’ll cry?” she howls?  Tyson is going for her Emmy here, having been understated the whole movie.  Not only does she refuse to play the tape, she refuses to hear an offered explanation from Martin, telling him, “you don’t have to explain, just put your arms around me.”  Now Tyson is back to being the movie’s central sense of calm, not an easy role to play, but she’s also not just any actress.  Also, kudos to Mann for including this episode in his central quest of proving Martin Luther King was a man as well as a hero and a martyr.  That Sunday’s sermon is King’s wildest, and Winfield’s time to really let go.  I won’t quote it because every word is perfection; watching it is to be moved.

In her dignified way, Coretta is in a fighting mood when she challenges Lockwood about a nasty article he’s written about her husband ruining the movement.  “This is a necessary war for black people as it is for white people,” he laments, referring to Vietnam and Martin’s stance against it, which has indeed cost them Johnson’s favor.  Giving Coretta the anti-Vietnam speech saves us from having Martin do it, in other words, getting the point across without further tarnishing King’s image more than it has been in the previous few scenes.  Once again, this is where the smart American miniseries would find its footing as some of the best television the world would ever know.

“The war in Vietnam is just a symptom of a malady in the American spirit,” King tells the world.  By this point, he has lost his spirit, viewing gains as failures, realizing that hatred is too endemic in the American mind for change to happen quickly on a grand scale.  And Vietnam protests are messy.  Simply marching the way he had once done is not possible.  A younger generation is not swayed by nonviolent protests.  What he calls for is a “true revolution of values,” but he’s become a radical now, no longer a centrist or peacemaker, raging about the war.  SNCC wants to use violence as the central method of combat and that Martin will not do, but he’s on the losing side of that argument.

King goes to the most poverty-stricken areas of the country seemingly unaffected by Johnson’s Great Society.  He offers to take the poor to Washington, called “The Poor People’s Campaign.”  He tells the press it will be blacks, whites, and any other race, to “place these people at the seat of government in the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind.”

Dr. King is still the voice people want in a world going crazy.  When two garbage men are crushed in their truck in Memphis because their boss would not allow them to stand inside during a deluge, they want Martin to speak.  His advisors beg him not to go, the schedule does not permit it and they don’t have time to arrange proper security.  He goes, but once again, rioting youth overtake the proceedings and King is forced to flee.  Despite this, he pledges to return to Memphis.  “Nonviolence is on trial,” he insists, sticking to his principles, though the world around him is no longer impressed by it.

The inevitable is upon us, so the miniseries does get a bit treacly, which is understandable.  Martin takes the family to an amusement park where he’s overcome with love for his son on a ride.  His brother decides at the last minute to go with King, who has told all of his loyal followers not to give into fear.

Memphis looks as bad as Vietnam, with a trash strike and a population beaten down.  Martin and his minions find out that the kids who turned the march violent were paid to do so.  By the FBI.  “They have them at a lot of demonstrations.  I’m not the only one,” the kid who pushed King at the last protest tells them.  Predictably, King refuses to leave Memphis.  “Why?  You think it’s going to be different anywhere else?”

Tensions are high.  Security is working overtime.  Martin is too tired to speak at a massive meeting where the supporters chant “we want King” until Abernathy calls him and tells him he has to show up.  He’s also sent Coretta flowers, artificial ones, because he wanted her to “have something nice.”  He jovial, starting with the incident of the pen stabbing and then recounting his victories, so numerous and so important, a set of victories unimaginable in American history since these changes.  This is the famous “On the Mountaintop” speech and Winfield now does actually DO King, this one time.  His acting is flawless and King would be proud to see an actor inhabit him so amazingly.  Well, I think he would.  The speech is so extravagant, he all but passes out when he’s done.

Black policeman are called in the middle of the night with orders of a transfer to locations far from King.  All are suspicious of the excuses used to move them around.  Yes, the purpose is to build a conspiracy against one crazy man doing one crazy thing that will change the whole crazy world.  Despite the fear, Martin and his men are in great moods, even having a pillow fight, the most fun we’ve ever seen King have in the movie.

Joking on the balcony one moment, a shot rings out the next.  His followers can barely function, they are so overwrought, not least of all King’s brother.  When Coretta is called and hears that Martin has been shot, a shudder goes through her body as if she’s been struck by lightning.  Watching that did the same to me.  The news breaks on the TV as Coretta is on the phone.  He’s still alive at the hospital, his followers refusing to leave the operating room, but soon it’s over.  A world has crumbled and since April 4, 1968, it has never been fully put back together.

As an autopsy is performed, his aide present so proof cannot disappear as it did in Dallas, he insists.

When the American Miniseries was at the top of its game, nothing could top it.  “King” is the top of the game.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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