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PBS Home Video presents
American Experience: Citizen King (2004)

"When we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!'"

- Dr. Martin Luther King

Review By: Jeff Rosado  
Published: February 01, 2005

Stars: Taylor Branch, Andrew Young, Wyatt Walker, Walter Fauntroy, Roger Wilkins, Xernona Clayton, Jack Greenberg, Courtland Cox, Joseph Lowery, Dorothy Cotton, James Cone, Deenie Drew, Clarence Jones, Ruth Barefield, Michael Dizaar
Other Stars: Richard Custer, Geneva Jones, C.T. Vivan, Ramsey Clark, James Orange, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, James Foreman, Charles Cobb, David Halberstam, Renault Robertson, Addie Wyatt, Victoria Gray Adams, Juanita Abernathy
Director: Orlando Bagwell, W. Noland Walker

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, racial slurs)
Run Time: 01h:52m:01s
Release Date: February 01, 2005
UPC: 841887050012
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+B+B+ B-

DVD Review

To many outside the South, the third Monday in January designated as a holiday to honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, doesn't seem to mean much than just another paid day off. Those who tend to look slightly deeper into its significance can tell you it's an annual commemoration of the gospel preacher's birthday; the nice man who made a famous speech pleading for racial equality upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, who was later felled by an assassin's bullet.

Thank goodness for filmmakers like Orlando Bagwell and W. Noland Walker. Perhaps it was this mindset that inspired them to reach far beyond the over-played aspects of Dr. King's career to create a feature-length portrait of a man whose courage, zeal, and faith propelled him to take a stand for what he believed in, even if it cost him his own life. Citizen King, an incredibly well-made documentary that originally aired as part of PBS's American Experience series, takes us back to the last five years of the Nobel winner's life, one of the most turbulent times in our nation's history, beginning on a pivotal Easter weekend in Birmingham, Alabama.

In town to oversee a series of planned peaceful protests that fell apart amidst threats from the Magic City's police force, King decided to put himself in harm's way as an example to his followers, leading marching members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff, clad in jeans and a work shirt, preparing himself for the inevitable arrest at the local city hall. Incarcerated and isolated, Dr. King takes advantage of the solitude from the escalating tensions to compose a letter to his fellow clergymen who felt his actions were "unwise and untimely." Using his wonderful gift for simplistic yet poetic language, two key phrases of this historic document not only sum up the heart of the civil rights movement, but also expertly convey the his intense feelings at that place and time:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one, directly affects all indirectly."

Inspired by his words, young blacks across Birmingham took up the call to bravely stand united, even in the face of shameful treatment by local law enforcement who used high-pressure water hose attacks (on even the smallest participants) and unleashed vicious attack dogs. The startling images preserved by wire service photographers and local television stations stunned the nation and the world with this powerful dose of unjust racism. Even President Kennedy felt compelled to make a statement, commending the sensible individuals in the city who promised to make an effort to move forward in improving race relations, a move Dr. King called a major victory in the aid of "breaking down the barriers of segregation."

But more battles and hurdles remained. For every major step forward—the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom culminating in King's moving "I Have a Dream" speech, his richly deserved 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—painfully devastating setbacks materialized—the relentlessly sad 1963 bombing of a local Birmingham church that claimed the lives of four black girls and surveillance evidence that revealed marital infidelities. Despite the hardships of being in the eye of a seemingly never-ending hurricane, victories like the one earned in the momentous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery that spurred President Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that authorized federal examiners to register qualified voters, in effect doing away with literary exams aimed at minorities to keep them from participating in the political process, were truly worth the efforts.

Citizen King also explores lesser-known but equally powerful moments of his legacy, including the northern expansion of his efforts to Chicago, including another courageous march in the suburb of Cicero in which King was momentarily dazed by a brick hurled by someone whose uncensored comments bring home just how racially divided certain areas of our nation were at the time. But even that pales to the heartbreak endured when the mass media, fair-weather followers and even the president turned upon him after he denounced US involvement in Vietnam (which evokes an eerie sense of d&eacue;jà vu in these politically correct times when it's unfashionable to speak in such terms about the Iraq conflict).

But it's not all darkness; such heavy moments are happily balanced with rare photographs and footage of King in lighthearted mode: spending much needed down time with his beloved wife Coretta and their four children; a 1968 birthday party given by his support staff bearing gag gifts that elicits a rarely seen smile and warm laugh; and atmosphere following the famous April 1968 "Promised Land" speech that found the road-weary activist trading pillow fight jabs with a fellow comrade, seemingly revitalized despite running a fever.

One day later, by the force of a single bullet to the jaw, he was gone.

To date, only the overlong but wonderful Sidney Lumet/Joseph L. Mankiewicz co-directed King: A Filmed Record... From Montgomery to Memphis prevailed as the most noteworthy attempt to document the scope of Dr. King's accomplishments. Citizen King not only has the added advantage of hindsight, but also dozens of excellent interviewees including SCLC members (including former Atlanta mayor, Andrew Young), numerous co-workers and close friends, historians Taylor Branch and James Cones, and surviving participants from many of those historic days including Michael Dizaar, one of the many African-American youths who participated in the Birmingham protests and Joan Brown Campbell, a white woman who traveled all the way from Cleveland to be a part of the crowd that listened to King's historic speech of August 28, 1963 given by the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some of the historical footage (pieces of the Selma marches for example) look better than I have ever seen them. Some of the vintage television material dating from the 1960s (including a rare 60 Minutes interview with Coretta Scott King) looks exquisite and sharp, as does the well-lit current interviews with King's protégées and historians.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Though most of King is aural in nature, much of the interview clips dating from the 1960s are dramatically cleaned up with the occasional musical interludes being quite effective and nicely spread in basic, but well mixed Dolby Surround.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with co-director Orlando Bagwell
Extras Review: Though I wish more of Dr. King's speeches and television appearances could have been contained in full-length versions as extras, a very nice chat with co-director Orlando Bagwell suffices. Wanting to create a film that would show more of the man than is generally allotted by today's media (the aforementioned I Have a Dream example given earlier), Bagwell's main objective was to showcase a period in which Dr. King truly came into his own as a man who had the ability to reach out to all kinds of people, but never afraid to be himself.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Happily coinciding with the start of Black History Month, Citizen King is an absolutely superb documentary commemorating a man who went to the mountaintop for the betterment of mankind. Though the extras are scant, the quality of the main feature more than makes up for it. A DVD that belongs in every home, every library and history classroom. Highest recommendation.


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