On the week of Martin Luther King Day, both Black Cinema House (on Sunday at 4 PM) and Block Cinema at Northwestern University (on Thursday, January 23, at 5 PM) will host free screenings of King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis, a long-unavailable 1970 documentary about the great civil rights leader. Comprised mainly of newsreel footage and devoid of offscreen narration, the film traces King’s career as a public figure, beginning with his involvement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and ending with his assassination in 1968. In direct-cinema fashion, it features numerous on-the-ground sequences depicting the civil rights marches in which King took part.
The film was reportedly a labor of love for producer Ely Landau, cofounder of the National Telefilm Company (which handled the distribution of older movies for TV syndication) and later the creator of American Film Theatre (a series of filmed plays that toured U.S. theaters in 1973 and ’74). Landau originally released the movie as a special “one night only” event, with all ticket sales going to the Martin Luther King Jr. Special Fund. This road show presentation ran three hours, minus intermission, and featured staged interludes directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in which various Hollywood stars delivered speeches about King’s legacy.
Block Cinema will screen the three-hour cut, while Black Cinema House will present the 103-minute version Landau prepared for TV broadcast, which excludes the movie-star interludes. Either version should be enlightening, as both present King’s speeches in full (rather than in sound bites, as most King memorials do nowadays). According to professor Thomas Doherty’s informative essay for Cineaste magazine (written last year upon the film’s belated DVD release), the movie features a significant Chicago connection:
Looking back—or for viewers looking on for the first time—the trek through the nation’s back alleys can only be bracing. In an age in which the charge of racism is spat out mainly for rhetorical effect, it is instructive to see and hear the real thing up close and in the face, to remember a time when “nigger” was spoken not as a slur but as casual vernacular… Lest viewers north of the Mason Dixon line begin to feel too smug, the rawest expression of vox populi hatred is in Chicago, where frothing mobs shout invective and wave swastikas, a display of venom which seems to rattle King more than the unleashing of German shepherds and fire hoses in Birmingham and Selma.