King in the Wilderness Filmmakers on Unearthing the Human Story of an Icon

By Eleanor Laurence


Documentary director Peter Kunhardt, whose credits include Living with Lincoln, Nixon by Nixon and Gloria: In Her Own Words, excels at bringing personal dimension to political figures. Turning his focus to the final years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, Kunhardt sought to unearth the human story around the civil rights leader.

He and executive producer Trey Ellis, who conducted many of the interviews featured in the documentary, discuss their desire to tell Dr. King’s story, rough edges and all.

HBO: What inspired you to focus on the last 18 months of Dr.King’s life?

Trey Ellis: Peter contacted me and the great historian Taylor Branch to start thinking about what story hadn't yet been told. Between Taylor and myself, we interviewed 19 people who knew King personally. We asked them to tell stories to get a portrait of his life after the “I Have a Dream” speech and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We really shine a light on the three years of his life that have been ignored for a variety of reasons by history.

HBO: How did you approach conducting these interviews? Were there any surprise revelations?

Trey Ellis: The interviews were long so by the time you get to the second or third hour, people really were just talking about their friend “Martin.” It was just extraordinary to get this window into King when he wasn't making a speech, when he wasn't at a pulpit. That really humanized him. I was surprised most by how funny Dr. King was and how irreverent he was. He would mimic people and tell jokes.

Peter Kunhardt: I was fearful we weren't going to be able to capture it because too much time had passed and there wouldn't be people around to tell the stories that hadn't been written before. So when we found out that so many friends were still alive and eager to speak with us, and eager to open up in ways they hadn't earlier, that was my turning point. I realized we were on to something very, very special.

HBO: Who is the “Martin Luther King Jr.” the documentary introduces viewers to?

Trey Ellis: Peter put together these moments from footage and interviews to show the complexity of this man. That's what's so powerful about the film. It felt like directing an actor, looking in people’s eyes and judging what they were ready to tell, when they were ready to tell it, and to get them to drop their guard and not think they had to present the image of a perfect man. Clarence Jones, talking about his depression, Xernona Clayton, talking about his joy and his laugher. Andy Young, talking about the jokes he would make. You get this real, complete picture of who this person was.

HBO: What inspired the title King in the Wilderness?

Peter Kunhardt: It emerged actually out of Trey’s interviews. I remember listening to some of the setups before the actual interview began, when Trey explained to people what we were doing. He used the phrase “wilderness” a lot, and that kind of became the shorthand for what we were thinking of.

Trey Ellis: We wanted a sense of his loneliness, at the bottom of his popularity.Then there’s this biblical sense of wandering and trying to find something. Once we heard it, we knew it really encapsulated the story we wanted to tell.

HBO: How do you see the interviews and archival footage playing together to tell the story?

Peter Kunhardt: One of the exciting parts of the project is when the stories you are capturing and gathering begin to gel with the imagery that we uncovered. It brings a new dimension to the story: What this person says leads into what this person says, and it was recorded by this crew here. It's a lot of detective work knitting it all together.

Trey Ellis: The interplay between these people in their late 80s and then turning back to footage of them in their 20s — it’s incredibly moving. There’s a dance between the present and the past.

HBO: To your mind, why is it important to give King a more human face and identity?

Peter Kunhardt: I was aware the story of Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the great, epic stories we have in America. I did not feel like it had been told in any one film in its full depth and possibility. Here, 50 years later, on film is a virtually untold story. It’s almost Shakespearean in its ups and downs.

Trey Ellis: To me, the moment before he died, he was never less popular. Black people thought he was a sell-out and that nonviolence had failed; whites thought he was a communist or too radical. But the moment after he died, everybody wanted a piece of him and his legacy. Now, the edges have all smoothed. People don’t have a true sense of King and how progressive and uncompromising he was and really, how revolutionary. This documentary shows misconceptions we have about King are about the legend, not the man. When you study the man, it energizes you to make change.

HBO: Looking at today’s civil rights issues, what lessons can we learn from Dr. King’s struggle?

Trey Ellis: From the children’s March Against Gun Violence to the Black Lives Matter movement to the Women’s March right after Donald Trump’s inauguration, we see that nonviolent resistance works. You think that being violent is more radical, but actually history shows that it doesn’t actually work. The backlash is usually worse and doesn’t get you to where you want to go. King seemed to understand and have this amazing sense of the long term: the sense of how you can affect long-term change.

Peter Kunhardt: When you see a human being like Martin Luther King Jr. — where everything seemed to go against him, yet he sticks to his principles, sticks to his ideals, pushes forward — to me, the message is human beings can make a difference. You just have to keep at it, keep going, keep moving forward.