It’s tempting to take a multifaceted figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. and observe him from every angle, as Peter W. Kunhardt attempts to do in his powerful documentary, “King in the Wilderness.” But in his attempt to show the names and places that composed Dr. King, Kunhardt fails to dig beneath the Civil Rights leader’s surface. Even with a run-time of 10 hours composed of every single rare interview or poignant speech that Dr. King ever gave,” this documentary still wouldn’t tread into the waters of greatness had it focused on a single aspect or event of his life.
Funny enough, “King in the Wilderness” does try to do that, its original narrative about the final years of Dr. King’s life. There aren’t any clips of the Selma march here, nor any audio from the “I Have a Dream” speech. This documentary is the aftermath of all that, depicting a man who devoted his life to Civil Rights and arguably changed the world, but is still plagued with the fear that he hasn’t done enough. Kunhardt’s “after” narrative is much needed, as images of children holding up swastikas and northerners shouting the N-word immediately dispel the notion that Dr. King’s March on Washington was the end of racism in this country.
Kunhardt doesn’t just give us images to show the harrowing realities of Dr. King’s final years, but relies on the voices of those nearest and dearest to the leader to provide testimony on his legacy. Jessie Jackson, Congressman John Lewis, folk singer Joan Baez, and even another “king,” the King of Calypso Harry Belafonte, speak with an intimacy and fondness that only a close friend would have. Except for a brief snippet of introductory text, there is no external description of how each person specifically relates to Dr. King. We don’t know what these interviewee’s duties were in King’s organization, whether one person had more responsibility than another, or if one was more of a confidant to Dr. King while others were simply a friend. They’re all just depicted in the same manner, a famous name and face who have something interesting to say about Dr. King and that time in his life.
As their testimonies grow, so does the scope of “King in the Wilderness.” The documentary jumps between footage of Chicago and Memphis marches to images of Dr. King in school and preaching with his father in Atlanta. We get compelling side stories about Dr. King’s rugged relationship with Stokely Carmichael, or the movements and actions made by his equally-articulate wife, Coretta Scott King. These moments and side stories hook us, but it’s always disappointing when the doc isn’t able to elaborate on them further. By unfolding so much information and not sticking to its original narrative, “King in the Wilderness” makes us want more than it can possibly deliver.
Even though its misguided, Kunhardt delivers intimate moments that add a previously unseen, humanistic layer to Dr. King. It’s hard to believe that a towering figure like Dr. King would still get embarrassed by a surprise birthday party, or would still flinch by the sound of gunshots, despite them being a sad, regular occurrence in his life. The 1967 and 1968 footage shows Dr. King with a weathered face and tired eyes, the first time that many viewers will realize that the Civil Rights leader was simply running out of gas. Even though “King in the Wilderness” made us want more, we’re satisfied with learning that Dr. King wanted more too, that in the face of his immeasurable contributions to society, he was equally and immeasurably human.