Five Films Fit for A “King!”

17 01 2011

This week, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 82nd birthday. Since his assassination in 1968, many filmmakers have tried to capture the spirit of the “drum major of peace” on the big screen. We have compiled a list of five movies that are representative of his legacy and struggle.

The Vernon Johns Story (1994)
James Earl Jones was dynamic as the controversial lead pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Taking place before the Civil Rights Movement, Johns possess the strength and convictions of Dr. King but his approach is blunt and very direct. After countless run-ins with the local authorities, the church board decides to bring in someone young that they control – a young Atlanta preacher named . . . Martin Luther King, Jr.!

King (1978)
The life of Dr. King was vividly portrayed by Paul Winfield in this television mini-series. Stretching from his days as a Southern Baptist minister up to his assassination in Memphis in 1968, this star-studded tribute of Dr. King’s trials and tribulations co-starred Cicely Tyson as Coretta Scott King, Ossie Davis as Rev. King, Sr. and Howard Rollins, Jr. Director Abby Mann’s excellent script is notable because he made the film before King had achieved public sainthood and acceptance by the ruling class and this mini-series changed the way many people felt about civil rights.

Boycott (2001)
Once again, Dr. King is the focus for an updated story with him as a young preacher thrust in the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott while exploring the beginnings of his philosophy and motivation. While Jeffrey Wright bears little resemblance to the Nobel Peace prize winning Civil Rights titan, he does a startling job of capturing Dr. King’s speech and notably his distinctive cadence. While King has largely been granted mythical status, Boycott excels in showing that underneath it all he was  a real living and breathing man!

Selma, Lord, Selma (1999)
With Dr. King’s dream as a backdrop, this emotionally charged film centers on an 11 year old girl (Jurnee Smollett) in 1965 Alabama who is touched by a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Clifton Powell) and becomes a devout follower. But her resolution is tested when she joins others in the famed march from Selma to Montgomery. Directed by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), the film is greatly affecting but it is not likely to sway someone who isn’t ignorant of the struggle for civil rights nor persuasive enough to think about the events in a new light.

Freedom Song (2000)
This story of the contentious relationship between a father (Danny Glover) and son (Vicelleous Reon Shannon) is a surprising, powerful, emotional, sometimes funny, always honest look at the civil rights movement. While focusses mostly on teenagers, the film is fascinating featuring terrific acting and a great score by Sweet Honey in the Rock and James Horner. Shannon provides the centerpiece for a powerful chronicling of the civil rights movement. This film is an impressive re-telling of how the non-violent emphasis within that movement led to its eventual success.

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