The new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness offers a poignant look at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who’s been immortalized for his life’s work, but saw personal and professional struggles in the last three years of his life.
The movie, which debuts Monday, April 2, arrives a few days before the 50th anniversary of his assassination at a Memphis, Tenn. motel and offers those new to King’s philosophies and longtime admirers of him a chance to see into his inner circle.
In 1965, he pivoted from tackling civil rights head on and went on to address housing discrimination in Chicago, poverty and the Vietnam War, which he opposed. He continued to make powerful enemies, from the FBI to the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, who wanted King out of his city and expressed that in secret recordings to President Lyndon Johnson.
To make this moving documentary, director Peter Kunhardt traveled to the South, and with the help of writer Trey Ellis and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Taylor Branch, spoke to notable figures such as Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson and Xernona Clayton, who worked closely with the civil rights leader until his death in 1968.
“Everybody left him,” Clayton said at the New York premiere of the film at The Riverside Church. “He said, ‘I can understand my enemies not supporting me, but my friends? How could they go off and leave me? How could they not understand? I’ve always talked about how war is evil; there is no victory in war.’”
Viewers will connect with King in the Wilderness not because it’s another documentary on King, but because it offers an unguarded look at a man far removed from the person he was in 1963 when he delivered “I Have a Dream” at the March on Washington. It shows a man who struggled with his place in a movement where some began to reject his beliefs, where he was a target from all sides and someone who seemed to have made peace that he wasn’t going to be around for much longer.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” King said in his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered a day before he died. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now.”
It’s clear that the filmmakers behind King in the Wilderness want people to see King in a different light. To show that he wasn’t always the confident leader that history remembers him as. Kunhardt shows a man, who despite his challenges and feelings of isolation in the movement, never gave up. They hope that King continues to serve as an inspiration to those wanting to make a difference.
Check out the trailer below.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.