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Producer Trey Ellis Speaks On Revealing A “Complicated, Difficult” MLK in ‘King in the Wilderness’ Documentary [Interview]
A new documentary on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by producer Trey Ellis reveals the “complicated, difficult” civil rights leader while framing the last years of his life.
King in the Wilderness, a new documentary from HBO, directed by Peter Kunhardt (Bobby: In His Own Words, Finding Your Roots, Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words), chronicles the tumultuous last three years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life using rare archival footage and modern-day interviews with some of his closest confidantes, including Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Xernona Clayton, and Diane Nash.
WATCH: The First Trailer For HBO's 'King In The Wilderness' Documentary
It’s a testament to the film’s strength that it doesn’t shy away from the more difficult, complicated aspects of King’s life. His infidelities are addressed, as is his battle with depression and anxiety. We see the pushback he faced from black and white people alike once he owned to fight against the interconnected societal ills of the military industrial complex, poverty, and racism.
WATCH: Livestream #MLKNow & Honor The Legacy Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And we see lighter moments as well, all of which round out King as a man, rather than a myth.
Novelist, screenwriter, and professor Trey Ellis (The Inkwell, Good Fences, Tuskegee Airmen), who is the executive producer of King in the Wilderness, was kind enough to get on the phone with Okayplayer to talk about how this film came together and the complicated legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Source: Trey Ellis via PR
Okayplayer: When I watched the documentary I was really struck by the more rare archival footage because I think of King as someone who was photographed and filmed pretty extensively, but there were still clips in there that I had never seen before. What was the process in tracking down some of that more rare footage?
Trey Ellis: I'd like to take credit for that, but we had this amazing archivist Jill Cowan and she really scoured the original sources and everywhere, looked under every rock to find news images of one of the most recognizable faces in the world and some of the really recognizable set of images and new images to really reintroduce him to a whole new generation. Back then, news footage was shot on 16 millimeter film and it wasn't all developed. So we went into the archives of the different networks and found all this footage that never before was seen or processed. It looks great and it takes you back into time.
OKP: I really love that footage of his birthday, his last birthday. It was bittersweet because it was his last, but it was really sweet to see him laugh and to see people roast him, which you don't really think about civil rights icons roasting each other.
TE: That was amazing. There was this Italian documentarian who was there at the time and then soon after his death PBS was filming a film about him while he was shot and they wouldn't use the footage so we have that. When I had to interview Xernona Clayton, she'd mention that birthday story and we were lucky enough to find the footage to animate it.
OKP: You're talking to his friends and his confidants and they are recounting good memories like that, but they're also recounting difficult and painful memories too. How you were able to kind of coax those stories out of them?
TE: A part of it is because at their age they've been doing this for a while and protecting King's legacy for a long time. Now they were at a place in their lives where they could tell his story, warts and all. I think they understood what we said about this film and that by telling the truth, the true parts are the true King, and that's more interesting than the man in the statue—the perfect person. Part of that was just having sat with them for two-to-four hours at a time so I would just wear them down until they would really talk about their friend without guard.
OKP: Why do you think it is that people know less about this time period in King's life than the traditional "I Have a Dream" speech, and the March on Washington? People don't really talk enough about the Poor People's Campaign or when he took on the Daley machine in Chicago.
TE: I've been thinking about that a lot with this film. When he's saying, "I have a dream that everything will be great" and everyone's happy and who doesn't want that? That was easy to say, "I had this dream of a perfect world where this racism doesn't exist." So conservatives and liberals, black and white, we can all get behind that. So all of those early successes were the relatively easy fights. He said that segregation clearly was such an odious institution, so clearly wrong, even many whites in the South understood how the law worked, the legal segregation.
When Dr. King brings his movement to the North and you have this de facto segregation in these neighborhoods and you see the venomous outpouring of hatred, you know those roots [of racism and white supremacy] are much deeper than just segregation. Segregation was the easy part, it was the low hanging fruit.
The King that we talk about, from '65 to '68, is talking about a universal guaranteed income for the poor. He's talking about militarism, racism, and poverty. He was talking about poverty of all colors. That is a radical progressive message that is also across America that indicts America for putting on a happy face and saying we're going to be equal opportunity when clearly you have a lot of work to do. The King we talk about is a complicated, difficult King, and it is much harder to square with the almost conservative and naive King of the “Dream” speech.
OKP: How do you think that his legacy can be complicated a little bit more and not reduced to that one-dimensional King that tends to be presented?
TE: I think our film is a first step. The first, first step I think, was the election of Donald Trump and ripping off the veneer of this color blind society that we live. So I think our film comes right at a moment with the rise of white nationalism. These issues were really percolating then, and they really have come to the fore since the election of Trump. I think that the movie shows that King had his finger on a lot of these problems back then, and we're still living with them right now.
I think that with King, what the movie also uncovers is that the way forward is not anger and militarism. That the way forward is long and difficult and unsexy, and it is a non-violent change. It's day-to-day fighting a battle whether the media is for you or against you. He kept his head down and kept doing the work. That's what the movie does and I think that's really where we're living in the world now. But people put their head down and do the work and sometimes you get awarded like these amazing high school students that just took over Washington and said that they were marching for our lives.
OKP: What do you hope people will take away from this film? That period of '65 to '68, is a lot like the period from 2014 to now. It's really striking and also really sad that we seem to be mired in these same issues.
TE: My feeling is that you think it's going to be a history lesson, you think it's going to be about things you already know, but I tell people everything you thought you knew about King was wrong. If you think that’s what would have happened had he lived, in fact, he did live three years after all the things that we probably remembered him for.
When you look at what he did and how effective it was, and you look at the problems that we're wrestling with today, I know that we have plenty of work to do right now. There's no need to go into a time machine and go back in time and fight a battle we know we should win. We have a battle right now for the soul of this country and to bring love and compassion back to this country and bring some sense of justice back to this country. We all have a job to do.
OKP: Was there anything else that played a factor in you deciding to be a part of this film and be an executive producer and get it made?
TE: I'm new to documentaries. We had some friends in common and they called me and they said, ‘Hey, would you like to interview with John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and Bernard Lafayette?’ They named these people and they said, ‘Hey do you want to go out and interview the Justice League?’ I mean how could you say no? It was really an incredible opportunity for me personally in my age. It turns out that Diane Nash, one of my big heroes, knew my parents. It was just incredible.
OKP: Oh, wow. How did she know them?
TE: From Howard University. She was a freshman at Howard and then she transferred to Fisk. She knew them and told me stories about them. It's been an unforgettable experience.
OKP: Was there anything else that you learned during the production and were there any other unexpected revelations?
TE: I was surprised by how funny Dr. King was. Getting Andy Young laughing about memories of him, it was really emotional. And the extent of his depression, that’s another part of the film that people really respond to. You'll see the film and you'll see him laugh probably for the first time, and also how depressed he was in the later part of his life until he comes to peace with knowing how it's going to end. He doesn't know when, but he's not afraid of death.
OKP: This documentary was the first time I saw how physically and emotionally exhausted [King] was. Hearing about the fact that he dealt with anxiety and depression, that was something that's been a conversation that's been coming up now with current day activists. We know what happened with Erica Garner and what's been happening with the activists from Ferguson, but I never heard anyone talk about what the heroes we looked up to were dealing with. Was there any kind of hesitation on your part in including that part of King's life?
TE: I wanted to hear all of the people we interviewed and what they wanted to say. They're all in their 80's so I really wanted to get them to tell their truth and then follow the truth to where it took us. And that took us to some dark places in Dr. King’s life and very unexpectedly to some light places as well.
King in the Wilderness is now streaming on HBO Go and airing on HBO. Watch it and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.