For one night only in 1970, the three-hour documentary “King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis” screened in 650 theaters across the United States. “It was released as a special event, and we had no idea what kind of response it would get,” says longtime documentary filmmaker Richard Kaplan, who compiled the work with his producing partner, Ely Landau, from hundreds of hours of footage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. “It was a great, great, great success. But it has never happened since.”
As part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the 80-minute first half of “King” will be shown for free Sunday afternoon at the Atlanta Cyclorama, in partnership with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Kaplan will attend the screening and engage in a post-film conversation with author and activist Constance Curry and civil rights activist and educator Lonnie C. King.
The documentary was the idea of the late Landau, who had worked with Kaplan before. “He was a very successful producer and distributor,” Kaplan says. “He distributed my documentary ‘The Eleanor Roosevelt Story’ that won the Academy Award.” Landau called Kaplan a few days after the murder of King in 1968 with the idea of putting together a 10-minute appreciation, “sort of a labor of love,” Kaplan says. (For Kaplan, the project had personal interest: he was an acquaintance of Coretta Scott King’s when both were at Antioch College, in different classes, “and I knew her sister quite well.”)
The projected 10-minute film proved too brief to do justice to the subject. There was just so much footage to work from — footage that was generated by the explosion of television and other news reportage in the 1960s, and which itself contributed to the countrywide conversation about King and the fight for civil rights.
“The boycotts and marches became a national issue, and that in effect became responsible for the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Bill,” Kaplan recalls. “When the nation saw what was going on in Birmingham, with the police dogs and the fire hoses, that affected public opinion. Even [President John F.] Kennedy, who wasn’t initially favorable to the idea of the March on Washington, after he saw the public reaction to what was going on, he changed his mind.”
Kaplan and Landau worked for two years, with dozens of assistants, to compile the footage into a cohesive film. “Our original first cut was about 12 hours,” he says. The final, three-hour version is organized in an interesting way. There is no narration. Instead, it uses bridging material of actors — Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and others — reading from poems, literature and history texts.
Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz filmed those segments; as a result, over the years the two have erroneously been credited for directing the film itself. “There is no directing or writing credit to the film,” Kaplan says.
The documentary lay in a state of limbo for many years, due to questions of copyright and ownership of footage; that’s why it hasn’t been seen theatrically in well over 40 years. But Kaplan finally decided to “bite the bullet” and release it in a small way on DVD. When no legal objections were raised, he made a distribution deal with Kino Lorber, and the DVD is now commercially available.
As another part of the 50th-anniversary year, Kaplan and Kino Lorber are planning to offer his 24-minute film about King, “Legacy of a Dream,” narrated by James Earl Jones, at no cost to any high school interested in showing it to its students.
“King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis – Part 1.” 3 p.m. Sunday, August 25, at the Atlanta Cyclorama. Admission is free. 800 Cherokee Avenue S.E.