I Am MLK Jr. aired on April 4, 2018, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. In making this tribute to Dr. King’s life, filmmakers John Barbisan and Michael Hamilton wanted us to see a more personal side to one of the most inspirational leaders in history. To bring us this new insight into Dr. King’s life, they brought together history-changing civil rights-era activists like Rev. Al Sharpton, Congressman John Lewis, and Rev. Jesse Jackson; educators such as Minnijean Brown Trickey and Dr. Bernard Lafayette; and celebrities like Nick Cannon, Carmelo Anthony, Malcolm Jenkins, and Van Jones.
We were lucky enough to sit down with John and Michael to talk about I Am MLK Jr. and get their perspective on Dr. King and the fallible man he was.
In I Am MLK Jr. you show the highs and lows of Dr. King’s life and career. Why did you think it was important to show those ‘valleys’ and ‘mountaintops’?
Michael: I think it’s because it’s the true lineage of a man, or woman, as a human. We have ups and downs in our daily lives, in our careers, and in what we believe in. Martin was no different. And that’s kind of the whole message of the film and what we were trying to show; Martin was just a regular guy, suffering from insecurity and depression and fears. It was a natural theme in the film to show that because we wanted to portray him as just a guy. That ‘Mountaintop’ speech was very important because he’d actually given that speech before. But I think at that point in his life he’d come to the realization that “the end is near, I’m actually coming to my demise,” and I think that speech was given with that extra flair and passion because he knew the end was near.
John: I think Michael’s point about him being a normal human being is interesting and in the movie, Jeffrey Shaun King states something to that effect. He says, “Dr. King used his gifts in extraordinary ways” and what I think is interesting about following Dr. King’s challenges as a person is we all go through challenges. But Dr. King was able to use his gifts in extraordinary ways and make some massive changes and truly inspire people. So, there’s an inspirational aspect of looking at it from that perspective. It’s not only about the mountaintops, but it’s also about the valleys; I think that’s something people relate to.
What is the relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message in today’s world?
Michael: Dr. King was known to say, “Darkness can’t drive out darkness, only light can. Hate can’t drive out hate… only love can.” And I think his viewpoint throughout his whole life was that love conquers all. It’s a burden to hate someone and it’s a burden to always have hate. I think that’s the message that we take into our everyday lives. Hopefully that message will fulfill what we’re trying to portray in Dr. King’s legacy and message, which is that with love you can conquer and achieve anything. There is hope for us and I hope that’s the positive message that we can see today and that the youth can see today. And I hope that folks who are in similar positions can say, “there is hope if can we just use our love to conquer anything that is stuck in our life.”
John: Yeah, Tavis Smiley refers to it in the movie as a profound or deeply empathetic form of love. And, you know, we’re still having many of the same conversations today as Dr. King was having at the time, even if the context is slightly different. But in many ways these conversations are the same; it’s a reminder that the disciplined and profound love that Dr. King had for humanity could probably take us a few steps forward again because it seems to have been, to some degree, forgotten.
What can educators do to bring Dr. King’s philosophy with them as they go about their daily lives?
John: You know, Michael and I spoke to a large group of people at a Q&A following the premiere of the film in Chicago. The premiere was set up in conjunction with the Soul Children of Chicago, which is a youth choir that performs in the film. There were a lot of educators and a lot of younger people there, and what was interesting, I think, was the takeaway in the case vis-a-vis educators. A lot of people ask, “why isn’t this in the history books?” and I think what we’re hoping to suggest and what we learned, or at least I learned, in the movie, was that Dr. King was a great leader. And maybe nowadays people are wondering who their great leader is, but really, Dr. King was just like you or me, and he became this great leader. It goes back to the idea of using your gifts in extraordinary ways; he had a skill for that, no question, but perhaps young people could think about it in terms of knowing that he is an example of their own potential and that perhaps they could be the next MLK Jr.
Michael: Absolutely. You theoretically don’t need a leader. I mean, like John said, it’s in all of us to do the right thing and to do good. And I think that was always Martin’s message: to be the best you possible. I think if you can do that, then you’ll achieve great things. The definition of a movement is an event that is happening in multiple places simultaneously and if we can all be the best version of ourselves, we can make a change, a positive change, in the world. And another message that I think young folks, and all people, can take from Martin Luther King was that he never backed down. You know, he was exposed to fear, hate, death threats concerning himself and his family, and physical violence, and he never cowered. He never backed down. Was he afraid and fearful? He was fearful, but he was fearless. And I think the message to young kids, or even adults, is that if any obstacle is standing in your way, then there’s a way around it, or through it. Don’t ever give up; don’t ever give up.
Is there anything else you want to say about the film?
John: We wanted, on the anniversary of his death, to see Dr. King through a different light and look at his experiences from a different angle. We wanted to see him through his personal experience and set those experiences against key moments in his career. Oftentimes, we’ll look at someone who is a historical figure, and a lot of movies have been made around King that are based on the events of the movement, and those stories are populated by characters. In this case, we thought we could maybe learn more about the character himself: Dr. King. We let the movement illuminate him and used it to figure out what kind of person he was so we could feel it a little more and get that sense of pathos. In doing so, we hope we were able to achieve a certain amount of inspiration for the viewer.
Michael: The ultimate message is that by watching this film, and I hope we did our job, you’re going to see a man that struggled just like you and me, but he got back up every day. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, the universal message you get from watching this movie is that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Dr. King did and he was just a normal guy.
John: We should give a shout out to all the people we interviewed. The energy of some of these people, who were in their youth 50 years ago, is incredible. The schedules that many of them keep, with travel and speaking and continuing, as Dr. Lafayette says, to keep the movement moving, that’s an ongoing process of engagement and education and learning. Their generosity with their time, and their lending us their profound life experience and insight for the purpose of this film was very generous. I think the idea of learning is intrinsic to who they are. That’s just another iteration of the inspiration of not only Dr. King, he wasn’t the only person in this movement, he had lots of people sharing the experience with him, and we were lucky enough to have some of them in the film. The pursuit of a responsible life through learning and engagement with people is something that we are surrounded by, and we want to bring that to the surface a little bit and help them share their message as they, in turn, helped us share ours.
I AM MLK Jr. is playing in cinemas across the country. If you didn’t get to watch it on April 4th, we highly recommend seeing it! You can purchase tickets here.
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