How do you dramatize a life? More specifically, how do you dramatize a life like that of Dr. Martin Luther King, who, in his 39 years, literally changed the world? When Selma began its roll-out, its distinction as the first feature film focused on Dr. King was a bit of a shock — but perhaps it shouldn’t be, since (aside from issues of legacy, which we’ll get to) it’s hard to imagine a two- or even three-hour film making its way around his entire life. But the critical and commercial (if not awards-season, sadly) success of Selma has revived interest in two earlier portraits of the civil rights leader, both created for the small screen: Clark Johnson’s 2001 HBO film Boycott, and the epic 1978 miniseries King (newly reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films). Taken together, the three films form an instructive portrait of what to do, and not to do, with the biopic form.
In terms of style and scope, Boycott has the most in common with Selma; like Ava DuVernay’s new film, Boycott eschews the full-life-biopic form and instead zeroes in on a single incident that defined the man, this time the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. (It also features Selma’s Carmen Ejogo playing Coretta Scott King for the first time; perhaps, to compete with Boyhood, someone should’ve pointed out that she’s been playing Mrs. King for 13 years.) And it makes for an ideal companion piece since, if you’ll forgive the superhero connotations, it’s something of an origin story. Initially, Dr. King is just a minister, not directly involved with Rosa Parks or the local movement; in early scenes he’s in meetings, listening, his eyes darting, thinking fast. He’s still finding his voice early on, but by the film’s conclusion, it’s firmly in place. And the great Jeffrey Wright, masterful in the role, nails that voice: the long vowels, the staccato consonants, the preacher’s cadences, the sheer electricity of his oratory.
We also find King at a moment where he’s still working out his style of protest. Boycott’s — and Wright’s — best moments remind us that non-violence may have been effective, but it wasn’t always easy, particularly when his family is being threatened. We don’t hear the voices on the other end of the phone, and we don’t have to; in a particularly effective scene, we watch Wright’s Dr. King put the phone back on the cradle deliberately, and then sneer when it rings again. Answering, he slowly, methodically tells the caller, “Do not threaten my family,” and slams the phone so angrily — yes, violently — that he knocks it off the wall.
King’s writer/director Abby Mann also spends a good deal of time contemplating the effectiveness of non-violence, and the difficulty of it. King (played here by Paul Winfield) is so infuriated by hecklers during the Birmingham march that he charges at them and must be pulled back by his fellow ministers; later, in one of the mini-series’ best scenes, he has a long, thoughtful conversation with Malcolm X (Dick Anthony Williams) about their contradictory strategies.
As with Selma, both films pay due attention to the importance of strategy and tactics (albeit not always with DuVernay’s flair for conversational exposition — there’s a fair amount of stiff signposting, particularly in the mini-series). And both take pains, as Selma does, to humanize King, to treat him as both a leader and a man. Early in King, Damon Lockwood (the wonderful Al Freeman, Jr., who later played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X) meets King while he’s relaxing at home and pegs him a “hayseed” for chowing down on chitlins during their conversation. Later, worrying about his smoking, King muses, “I’m not a saint. I wish I were.” It’s not exactly subtle, but it gets the point across.
Of course, there’s one area of King’s non-sainthood that these earlier films don’t touch on: his affairs. His family’s refusal to allow filmmakers to wrestle with those stories is one of the reasons earlier attempts at comprehensive biopics have failed; Selma can only tackle them because it was produced without the family’s involvement (and without his speeches). They were involved in King — many of them even appear in it — so a strangely long chunk of the first episode is spent on his and Coretta’s courtship; when, in the third, the tapes and threats from the FBI arrive and he asks if she wants to know the truth about the rumors, she responds, “No, you don’t have to tell me anything, just put your arms around me.”
So that’s a bit of a dodge — one that Selma thankfully doesn’t take — and for its epic length (four and a half hours total, without commercials), there’s still a sense that King is leaving a lot out: just comparing the Selma chapter, for example, we not only don’t see “Bloody Sunday,” but it’s barely mentioned in passing. (On the other hand, there’s a whole scene where Tony Bennett pops in as himself and sings a song. TV was weird in the ‘70s.) What King’s length allows is for a bit more of the people around the edges: King’s father and brother are brought to pulsing life by Ossie Davis and Art Evans, while we see the harrowing murder of Viola Liuzzo (merely a chilling postscript in Selma). More importantly, it allows Mann (whose earlier writing credits included Judgment at Nuremberg) to paint vivid portraits of time and place; there’s a scene between Rev. Fred Shuttleworth (Roger Robinson) and notorious Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor (Kenneth McMillan) that masterfully captures the way racists of the period luxuriated in their petty power.
But ultimately, even with its bulky running time, King still doesn’t quite leave the viewer feeling as though we know the man, if such a thing is even possible. The definitive King biopic may never come to pass — and perhaps that’s for the best. In the meantime, books, documentaries (like the excellent, and recently restored, King: A Filmed Record… Memphis to Montgomery), and micro-focused snapshots like Boycott and Selma may prove the only way to piecemeal together a fully detailed picture of this great, vital, complicated figure.