REVIEW: King in the Wilderness (2018 – Documentary)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a short review of HBO’s King in the Wilderness – Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt.

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, HBO released a documentary portrait of the late-great activist, baptist, and civil rights movement leader from Emmy-winning director Peter W. Kunhardt. The documentary titled King in the Wilderness is made up of talking head interviews with the people that knew King, who all try to paint us a picture of King’s state in the last few years of his life before he was shot and killed in 1968.

Martin Luther King is a pivotal figure in the history of American civil rights movements, and his skills as an orator and his leadership have made him somewhat of a deified figure. Some might say that most people know Martin Luther King as the historical figure that he was. But the story that King in the Wilderness‘ talking heads interviewees — like Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez — tell is one that attempts to paint King as a man seized by history.

In one of the first anecdotes from the documentary, civil rights leader Xernona Clayton tells us a story of Martin Luther King having to leave his home to go participate in a march, but that his children would block his path to the car. They desperately wanted more of their father, who, in becoming an invaluable leader of the civil rights movement, became a public figure unable to be with his family whenever they needed him. Later, the time he got to spend with his wife towards the end of his life is also discussed.

From start to finish, King in the Wilderness successfully gives new insight or angles to the great man. We see his friends and colleagues celebrate him with jokey birthday gifts, we hear of him having his heart broken as America turned on him, and we get to learn more about his father and his relationship with him.

The one problem that I have with this well-made nuanced documentary film is how it is also a straightforward and conventional documentary about a topic often depicted on-screen. Furthermore, I don’t think the section on Hoover added a lot of new information, but, of course, that section does manage to touch on the idea that men in power corrupted the perception of King. Hoover thought of the historical figure as an immoral opportunist.

A talking head interviewee quotes an African proverb early on, saying: “If the surviving lions don’t tell their stories, the hunters will get all the credit.” Later, King, who time and time again is referred to as the Moses of 1968, is described as a Moses in the wilderness — hence the title — of what he realized was a sick nation.

As the documentary reminds us, while his non-violent methods were praised, his late sixties attempts to do more than act as a civil rights leader was heavily criticized by previous supporters. This criticism was especially pronounced and hurtful to King when he voiced his opinion on Vietnam.

Some of the imagery that will always feel horrifying is also found in this film. Seeing angry young white men scream that they “want King” is terrifying, and the film does a good job of reminding us that the problems of then are still relevant now. America still has a long way to go. As is directly addressed towards the end, the American soul can only be saved if racism is eradicated.

Were it not for some deeply emotional glimpses into the reactions of the people who knew the great man, then this would be nothing more than a traditional, conventional talking head historical documentary. But, as it is, it is a moving and humanizing portrait of an overextended and pressured great man whose mission to save America’s soul is still relevant fifty years later.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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