With King in the Wilderness, a New MLK Comes into Focus



Director Peter Kunhardt welcomed attendees to the premiere of King in the Wilderness. By way of introduction, he told the audience: “There’s no narrator in this film, no historians, no analysis. It’s just friends and colleagues of Dr. King.”

The event took place at Riverside Church in New York City, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his polarizing speech against the Vietnam War in 1967. After the screening, executive producers Trey Ellis and Taylor Branch sat down with civil rights leader Xernona Clayton, who was also a close friend of Dr. King’s. Charles Blow, of The New York Times, moderated a discussion about the documentary’s uniquely human portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Here, a taste of what was said.

How do you elevate an icon? Give him a human face.

Ellis described stakes the production team set for the documentary: “How do you take the edges that have been smoothed for so many years, ‘Dr. King put on a mountaintop,’ and take him off to get to the real person?” As Ellis put it, “We started where everybody else stopped.”

Make a plan, and take responsibility.

Both in the documentary and during the evening’s panel, Clayton offered some of the most prized insights into King’s personality, as a leader and as a human being. Explaining,“He never took a step without a plan and a discussion,” Clayton gently noted only men were allowed in the room. “Chauvinism at its best,” she commented wryly before continuing her story, and how at the end of such discussions, King would thank the participants and promise: “I have listened to each of you. I’ll recall this information and I’ll come up with a decision. It may not be yours, but I will take full responsibility for what action I take. I’ll stand behind it.”

For Clayton, “That seems to me like a real man. He said, ‘If I lose, I’ll take the blame.’”

When there is no doubt — speak out.

Clayton described King’s emotional distress after he came out against the war in Vietnam, when many people he considered friends turned their backs on him: “He could never get it into his mind and his heart that his friends couldn’t understand” recalled Clayton. “ He saw children being burned with napalm and being mistreated, and he said, ‘I have no doubt, I must speak out.’ It cost him his friendships and his support.”

Nonviolence takes time, but it works.

A central theme in the film is the friction between King’s doctrine of nonviolence and the rise of the Black Power movement. Said Ellis found “he idea of using nonviolence the way Gandhi used it: If you stand up in front of these people, and they try to beat you with clubs, then you’re showing the world.” He added, “If you look at what’s happening today, this tactic is patient, but it works. If we’re going to save the world and take the country back from where it is now, it’s going to be through non-violent change.”

In his final moments, Dr. King was happy.

Reflecting on the doc’s treatment of Dr. King’s final day in Memphis, “I believe he died a happy man,” suggested Clayton. “His closest buddies were with him, and he talked to his mother and called his wife. I think he was happy. I feel in my heart, and that’s the way I’m accepting his death.”