By its title alone, a new HBO documentary which premieres Monday, April 2, “King in the Wilderness,” will undoubtedly evoke a sense of curiosity for those interested in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what this new production may reveal.
“It’s King at his lowest point — without the spotlight,” said Trey Ellis, co-executive producer of the documentary and an award-winning author, playwright and screenwriter.
“The press had left him, ” Ellis adds. “A lot of Black folks had left him and thought he was too soft. White folks left him and thought he was a Communist but he kept on with his work.”
The documentary takes a different approach from most efforts to chronicle historical events. Covering the last four years of Dr. King’s life, 19 men and women who had either personal or professional relationships with the civil rights icon recount their varied memories in order to more carefully examine the final years of his life.
The documentary uses archival footage interwoven with the interviews and in a rare director’s decision, does not utilize the voice of a narrator.
Beginning in 1964 and continuing until his untimely death, Dr. King became increasingly vocal about his opposition to the Vietnam war. During that same period, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) for which he served as president, took to the streets of urban centers outside of the South, leading nonviolent initiatives in efforts in places like Chicago and Los Angeles.
Blacks in the North had been involved in protests, focusing on issues that included inequitable and lower wages, unfair housing practices and an overall lack of access to services.
Beatings and other forms of brutality from the hands of law enforcement officers and counter-protests lodged by white racists who often wore swastika signs as a way of indicating their allegiance to the mentality and practices of Hitler’s inhumane Nazi philosophy struck Dr. King in ways that they had not experienced during their efforts for justice in the South.
Ironically, a cadre of Black preachers did not want Dr. King coming to their towns stirring up trouble. Those around King had become concerned about King moving too far away from the earlier goals and interests of the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, Dr. King, cognizant that he had spent too much time away from his family, appears to have evoked the signs of one suffering from depression.
Major figures in the movement contributed their voices to the documentary including: Andrew Young, executive director of the SCLC; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, director of SCLC Operation Breadbasket; Marian Wright Edelman, Mississippi director for the NAACP; and Xernona Clayton, a close family confidant and assistant to Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
The documentary unveils King’s doubts, his humorous side, his anger and the immense love for his family.
“A lot of people just know ‘I have a dream,’” said Clayton, addressing what she hopes people will see and learn by watching the documentary. “He loved to laugh so I think people will see the complete man. Of course, equity and justice were big issues for him. He taught the totality of man.”