The timing couldn’t have been better last week when, amidst the merciless media crunch of presidential campaigning, Hillary Clinton seemed to offer more praise for President Lyndon Johnson than Martin Luther King Jr. for passing 1964’s historic Civil Rights Act. It was exactly the sort of inadvertently weighty comment that sends historians into a fact-finding frenzy and makes rabid political pundits desperate for material froth at the mouth. The resulting mishmash of opinions and commentary—Clinton disrespected King’s legacy! Barack Obama distorted Clinton’s quote for personal gain!—was enough to leave the general public confused and skeptical.
Imagine my satisfaction, then, in being able to ignore the clarifications on “Meet the Press,” click past the spin on washingtonpost.com, and turn on Citizen King. A press copy of the award-winning documentary arrived last week in advance of the Montana Human Rights Network’s 5th annual celebration of King’s birthday. On Friday, Jan. 18, the 110-minute PBS film will screen at the Wilma Theatre, offering a second chance for locals to experience Citizen King on the big screen. In 2004 it received top honors at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
What makes Citizen King more than a typical social studies lesson and worthy of such awards—not to mention particularly trenchant following the Clinton folderol—is its full, warts-and-all portrait of the icon. In this film, we see King embarrassed and humbled by reports of infidelity, booed in Los Angeles for butting into local leadership, criticized for stretching the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Chicago, and questioned on his reluctance to embrace the Black Power movement. By focusing mostly on the five years between his defining “I Have a Dream” speech and his assassination in April 1968, Citizen King reveals a man who knows he’s become the face of a movement, but struggles, quite humanly, to consistently carry that burden.
And then there’s King’s relationship with President Johnson. Citizen King serves up no smoking gun, no either/or simplicity of who made the Civil Rights Act a reality. Instead, there’s even-handed insight into how they worked together—one popularly, one politically—during a contentious time.
For instance, there’s a generous phone conversation between the two men after the death of President Kennedy. Later footage includes commentary from former government officials who claim Johnson felt betrayed by King after his adamant criticism of the Vietnam conflict. Up until the end, it seemed like an intricate, complexly nuanced relationship—just the sort better left to interpretation via an esteemed film than a bunch of cable news spin doctors.
The Montana Human Rights Network hosts a Martin Luther King Jr. Day benefit on Friday, Jan. 18, at 7 PM with a presentation of Citizen King at the Wilma Theatre. Sen. Jon Tester will speak before the documentary. $18.