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.
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.
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.
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.