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Producer Trey Ellis Speaks On Revealing A “Complicated, Difficult” MLK in ‘King in the Wilderness’ Documentary [Interview]

Producer Trey Ellis Speaks On Revealing A “Complicated, Difficult” MLK in ‘King in the Wilderness’ Documentary [Interview]

Producer Trey Ellis Speaks On Revealing A “Complicated, Difficult” MLK in ‘King in the Wilderness’ Documentary [Interview]
Photo Credit: Magnum Photo Shop
Producer Trey Ellis Speaks On Revealing A “Complicated, Difficult” MLK in ‘King in the Wilderness’ Documentary [Interview]
Source: HBO

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.

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