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Martin Luther King Jr.

HBO’s ‘King in the Wilderness’ reveals the loneliness of his last years

Interviews with Martin Luther King’s closest friends reveal the personal cost of his focus on poverty and Vietnam

It’s a popular rallying cry for activists: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

But a new documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates the costs of calling out the shortcomings of your country, and one of them is loneliness.

In King in the Wilderness, which airs Monday night on HBO, Emmy-winning director Peter Kunhardt (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria: In Her Own Words, Jim: The James Foley Story) traces the final three years of King’s life through interviews with 19 of his friends and colleagues, including Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and Xernona Clayton. What emerges is a deeply personal portrait of King as human and vulnerable, someone who was not impervious to the criticism directed his way. HBO is making the full-length interviews, about 35 hours’ worth of footage, available on its website the same day.

King in the Wilderness charts the intellectual path that led King to Beyond Vietnam, the controversial speech he delivered at Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. By 1967, King had identified a triad of oppression, consisting of racism, poverty and militarism. He was trying to convince his followers the three were inextricably linked and that it was impossible to remedy one without addressing the other two.

But as King’s understanding of the world grew more complex and his critique went beyond the barbarism of Jim Crow, it became more difficult to marshal supporters. History is filled with martyrs who eventually find themselves in the wilderness for daring to speak openly about injustice, from Nina Simone to Muhammad Ali to present-day wanderers such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. We want our heroes to shut up and sing, or shut up and grab a gun when your country tells you to, or shut up and play ball, or simply shut up. And when they don’t, we take away the pedestal that allowed them to command our attention in the first place, in the form of album sales, or boxing licenses, or NFL contracts.

When King spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War, friends stopped calling, movement supporters stopped donating and his invitations to speak as a guest preacher began to dwindle. He earned the ire of those who were reluctant to criticize President Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who’d signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And there wasn’t necessarily a natural home for King in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that King and his black cohorts did not.

When you lose the adrenaline rush of dancing in the ring, or captivating an audience from your perch at a piano, or evading a sack, or nourishing souls around the country every Sunday, what’s left? That is the revelation of King in the Wilderness: that a man with a deep faith in the power of love could fall victim to something as common as depression.

Kunhardt presents King as more than an amalgamation of factoids, quotations and important dates. He explores King’s relationship with his father, Martin Luther King Sr., and it’s eye-opening to think of King Jr. as a young man bumping up against the authority of his father, who cast a long shadow as a community leader and patriarch. King, for example, was interested in folding the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche into his sermons, while his father, a preacher steeped in black Southern tradition, was not so keen on it.

King didn’t have a natural home in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that he and his black cohorts did not.

It’s easy enough to recognize that King paid for the country’s freedom with his life. But there was an earlier price, as King’s vision left his contemporaries feeling betrayed, angry and willing to withdraw the status they had conferred upon him. In the documentary, Clayton recounts how King’s close friends simply wanted to see him smile and laugh again after a year in which he’d done so little of either. She recounted presenting him with a couple of gag gifts at a birthday party in January 1968 in hopes of pulling King into the sun.

If Eyes on the Prize is required viewing for eighth-grade social studies classes, King in the Wilderness feels like an apt follow-up for older students who can identify with feelings of isolation and uncertainty about one’s place in the world. It broadens him beyond the two-dimensional rendering so many schoolchildren are presented with every year in advance of the King holiday. That seems especially valuable now as a generation of young people (including King’s own granddaughter) mobilize and agitate for a country with less gun violence and more compassion.

“I believe he died a happy man,” Clayton told an audience at Riverside Church after a recent screening of King in the Wilderness. “I really do.” She kept nodding as she repeated the words, and it was as though, 50 years later, she wasn’t just saying it to soothe those gathered in the pews, but to remind herself too.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.