“I’m just not telling stories, I’m telling you what happened,” says Xernona Clayton matter-of-factly in the opening scenes of King in the Wilderness.
Her words crystalize the premise of a new HBO documentary premiering in tandem with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The film like so many before it attempts—and in this case succeeds—at delving deeper into the man behind the movement, moving beyond well-worn narratives of King as a leader and family man.
Directed by Peter Kunhardt, the documentary chronicles the last few years of his life, highlighting the external and internal struggles King faced after voicing steadfast opposition of the Vietnam War.
“The media turns against him, some black people see him as soft, whites see him as a communist. What does he do?” said Trey Ellis, executive producer of the documentary.
“Does he change his message? No, he puts his head down and keeps moving forward. It rankled me that his radicalism and his fierceness had been smoothed,” Ellis told The Daily Beast. He continued, “in some ways his message had been co-opted by everybody and whitewashed.”
In an effort to regain that message, Ellis and Kunhardt turned to members of his inner circle like Clayton, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizer, Sen. John Lewis, and singer Joan Baez among others. After the backlash over Vietnam, King became depressed. “We hadn’t seen him laugh in a long time,” Clayton said of King who saw funding dry up, attacks from opponents intensify, and friends flee due to his pacifist view.
Andrew Young, also a leader in the movement, was concerned and asked Clayton if she would help lift King’s spirits. In turn, Clayton opted to give him a few unconventional gifts that she grabbed from her kitchen—potato chips since he was “always going to jail,” and a big cup “to stand on the corner and take up a collection” in support of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. King, typically reserved, “fell out laughing,” Clayton said. King would also tease friends about darker topics—like the underlying threat of assassination—and would start “preaching your funeral,” Young said.
While the documentary offers moments of levity, it vividly highlights the schism within the movement over civil disobedience tactics favored by the SCLC vs. a Black Power approach influenced by Stokely Carmichael, the then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Carmichael coined the phrase “Black Power,” which he saw as a “rallying cry” for fighting injustice and embraced violence, if necessary, as a means of self-defense. While King’s friends noted the effectiveness of the SNCC’s approach in using black power as mechanism for creating unity, King shied away from the phrase fearing it would drive away white allies.
At a June 1966 march in Memphis with Carmichael, King’s discomfort was apparent. Though he appeared laid-back, wearing a summer button-down and a straw hat, his short responses to questions from reporters were a stark contrast to Carmichael who appeared at ease. Relaxed and dressed in all blue, the SNCC chairman said people must examine why they were so “afraid of the word black and the phrase Black Power.” In that moment Carmichael was the more charismatic leader—a rarity for anyone in the same space as King.
Though the documentary touches on the movement’s differing ideology, Ellis uses King’s trials to provide connective tissue to present day, particularly the response of alt-right leaders who relentlessly attempted to intimidate activists at public rallies.
“The parallels, as we dove into this film, became more and more eerie,” Ellis said. “We have alt-right extreme neo-Nazis, who never went away, but, until now, never had such a voice in the White House,” Ellis said. Last year President Trump’s denounced the violence “on many sides” at the white supremacist-led rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person was killed and others were injured.
As the Black Lives Matter movement and others have risen over the past few years in response to police brutality in communities of color, modern activists similar to King bear the burden of sustained individual trauma in hopes of achieving collective progress. In 2016, 23-year-old MarShawn M. McCarrel II, an Ohio-based Black Lives Matter activist, committed suicide. In December, Erica Garner, who dedicated the last years of her life to seeking justice for her father Eric who died after being held in a chokehold by the NYPD, died from a heart attack at 29-years-old.
The Garner tragedy reveals “how racism is a multi-generational killer that destroys families,” Touré wrote in The Daily Beast of the systemic issues facing activists and communities of color.
While the documentary does not directly reference the movement, it shows a leader who like today’s activists must persevere through doubts, criticism, and, as Ellis noted, “a string of public defeats.”
The documentary ends on the day of his assassination, chronicling the grief and resilience of the pastor’s family, friends, and the nation at large.
Clayton recalled of King before his death, “He said, ‘you’ve got to make our lives count and you must be willing to die for a cause, so get one that will stimulate you.’”