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MLK: The Assassination Tapes

Written by Featured Organization on 21 January 2014.

April 4, 1968. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is gunned down on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. It was all caught on film, tape and audio. So why have we seen so little of it? The well-known photograph of Dr. King's aides pointing toward the direction of the gunfire is iconic, but tells only part of the story. For the first time, a remarkable collection of recently rediscovered footage has been chronologically reassembled. The resulting documentary allows us to revisit the tumultuous events surrounding one of the most shocking assassinations in America and relive history through the voices of the era.

Television review: 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes' takes you there. Using mostly archival materials, the Smithsonian Channel's 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes' does a marvelous job of walking viewers through a tragic moment in time.

February 11, 2012|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

There are only two things even remotely amiss with "MLK: The Assassination Tapes," a highly unsettling trip back in time that premieres Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel, 43 years and a day after the beginning of the sanitation workers strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tenn., and his death. And they are small things at that.

First, there is the slightly misleading title, which seems to imply a single cache of hitherto unsuspected, clandestinely recorded or revealing documents. Technically, there are tapes here that were not made public, from President Lyndon B. Johnson at the higher end of the ladder to squad car chatter at the lower. But the filmmakers quilt together a wealth of primary materials, many unseen or unheard since 1968, from a great many sources — albeit much of it already gathered for them at the University of Memphis.

Second, there is the score, which at times takes the film out of the reality it otherwise so effectively creates, or re-creates. I don't need music to tell me that King's last sermon — the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, a monument of American literature delivered on the eve of his assassination — is moving. I only need the speech.

Producer Tom Jennings repeats the goals and methods (and part of the title) of his earlier "The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination," which ran in 2009 on the National Geographic Channel. Relying exclusively on archival films, photographs and recordings, while eschewing subsequent reminiscences and scholarly perspective, it does not float above the fray but sets you down into it, into the place and the time, in order to make you experience those days as they happened, as though they're happening fresh — to forget what you know, in a way, and to feel. I have seen this ground covered in many, many documentary films, but I felt here that I was walking it for the first time.

There is much more to know about these days than what "The Assassination Tapes" has to tell — it runs just an hour, for one thing — and it incorporates only the testimony and the judgments of the moment, from the weeks before the murder through the days after. The later fate of the convicted killer, James Earl Ray, for example, is abandoned to a future this film doesn't cover. That doesn't strike me as a failing, however, but as focus. There are plenty of places to go to learn more.

One other thing Jennings does right: Apart from some cropping to suit the currently popular aspect ratio, he does not stretch and distort these images to fit a wider screen, as so many documentary filmmakers, who should know better, do nowadays.