Rarely available in its full form since 1970 Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record is one of the most important documents of the American civil rights movement. Told without traditional narration, this 181-minute documentary follows the last thirteen years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public life. The occasional subtitle is used to identify dates, places and the occasional individual. However, this documentary is truly about one man; one face, tracing his own words through the Birmingham Bus Boycott to the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and everything in between, no one could have said it better than the man himself.
The first few minutes of the film reminds viewers that King not only faced danger from racist whites, but scorn from some young blacks who advocated self-defense, physical force, eye-for-an-eye tactics and had little use for King’s constant pleas for turn-the-other-cheek passive resistance. News footage makes it all too clear what an uphill battle King was leading: fire hoses, police dogs and teargas unleashed on peaceful demonstrators, bombings, cattle prods were all par for the course. We get to see that King was a full participant in the movement, on the streets with the people, not just a man behind the pulpit delivering a speech.
While Martin Luther King is by far the central figure here and his numerous writings and public speeches—from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to “I Have a Dream”—dominate the proceedings, the dissenting words of local and state politicians help to make King’s words more understandable and important.
Fourteen well known entertainers including Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Harry Belafonte, James Earle Jones, Ruby Dee and others look at the camera and recite verses about racial tolerance. Give the power of the archival footage, these celebrity intrusions may seem unnecessary, but considering that A Filmed Record was released just two years after King’s assassination, the project likely required some big name endorsements to get made and seen.
Produced by Ely Landau and partially filmed by Sydney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this Academy Award-nominated documentary was added to the National Film Registry in 1999. Even so, It has only been available as a two-hour version for several decades. Kino Classics’ new two-disc release presents the full-length film on a 2-DVD set as it was meant to be seen.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, King: A Filmed Record is newly restored by the Library of Congress in association with Richard Kaplan and the Museum of Modern Art. Remastered in HD from the original 35mm preservation negative, the transfer has its share of scratches, as you might expect. There’s a rather nice grain structure throughout and the picture looks pretty nice on the move. While black levels are pretty flat with some mild flickering. An introduction mentions that certain segments are of poor quality but included for historical importance. Overall, this is a fine visual presentation that is, at best, surprisingly crisp and at worst, and completely acceptable.
The Dolby 2.0 track won’t bowl you over, but it gets the job done. Dialogue and other speeches are mostly understandable; subtitles are used when necessary. crackles and other distortions are kept to a minimum, though a few volume fluctuations were detected along the way.
No subtitles or closed captioning is available.
There are no special features included, but this film more than stands on its own.
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