Your MLK-Day Rental
Another example of how liberal Hollywood isn't is the paucity of good movies about the civil rights movement. You've got your documentaries (“Eyes on the Prize”; “Four Little Girls”), one or two good movies starring white people (“Mississippi Burning”), and a good biopic on a man who, for most of his public career, denigrated the civil rights movement (“Malcolm X”).
Recommendation: an HBO movie from 2001, “Boycott,” starring Jeffrey Wright as a young Dr. King and Terrence Howard as a young Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In an MSNBC piece on Wright in 2005, I wrote the following about “Boycott”:
I remember the first time I became aware of this film. I was at Scarecrow Video in Seattle and from the TV above the counter I heard Dr. King giving a speech. Except it was not his rousing “I have a dream” voice; it was his everyday sermon voice that lingered on words but never reached for the stratosphere. Save for the richness of the baritone, it was almost boring, and I wondered why they were showing one of Dr. King’s boring speeches at Scarecrow. But when I looked up it wasn’t Dr. King talking but Jeffrey Wright. I’d seen him play the graffiti artist Basquiat and the Dominican druglord Peoples Hernandez in “Shaft.” Now Dr. King.
When I finally saw the film what blew me away was not just the imitation — that he could do both versions (rousing and everyday) of the public Dr. King — but that he was able to articulate a private Dr. King that felt real. Let’s face it. In most Hollywood biopics great figures are, to quote “Amadeus,” “people so lofty they sound as if they s--t marble.” Not here. Jeffrey Wright’s private Dr. King teases and jokes. He flirts with his wife. While getting ready for bed, when she asks him if he thinks their neighbors will give up their cars to aid the boycott, his rich baritone drops to a purr. “Well,” he says, getting close, “I’ve been told I have certain powers of persuasion.”
The theme of “Boycott” is that history just doesn’t happen. History is a series of choices, and the filmmakers work hard to show you the choices that began the civil rights movement. To do this they need a human Dr. King who works things through — from simply asking for a more humane bus system to demanding the elimination of segregation itself. It’s not just a great performance. No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let me repeat that: No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.