Who Wants to See Sidney Lumet’s Rare Oscar-Nominated MLK Documentary?

Sidney Lumet directed a whole lot of movies, but only one of them is a documentary. And sadly this Oscar-nominated feature, “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis,” has been unavailable in really any format accessible to most Americans for many years. The original cut features extensive archival footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as onscreen readings of his speeches, by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee, Bill Cosby, Walter Matthau, Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston.

Co-directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 1999, it is a film I haven’t yet seen. Few recently have, I guess, since it initially screened one day — March 24, 1970 — in its 185-minute entirety at more than 600 cinemas, later aired a few times on commercial TV and then was cut down to less than two hours for a VHS release (with all celebs but Belafonte removed). Apparently the 3-hour cut screened at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, and I’m very sad that I wasn’t aware of the event.

Oh, but you can see it quite easily, actually, if you have the money to spend. Fitting with the original theatrical release’s charitable cause (proceeds of the then-high price of $5 went to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Special Fund), a non-profit company has made a 2-disc DVD set of “King,” for the price of $44.95 (proceeds said to go towards supporting MLK’s legacy). You can buy it here.

Watch the trailer (lacking the celeb appearances for some reason) below by clicking on the Vimeo box below:

Lumet was no stranger to documentary, even by 1970. Decades earlier, when he was a child actor, one of his first gigs was doing voice-over work for Joris Ivens’ “The 400 Million.” The 1939 film features war footage shot by Robert Capa in China and narration by Frederic March. I have not seen this film either, so I’m not sure to what extent Lumet’s “reader” role was.

The filmmaker also, of course, appeared in other people’s documentaries, most recently in “I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.” Other non-DVD-supplement docs, mostly film histories, include “A Decade Under the Influence,” “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust,” “The Education of Gore Vidal” and the Kevin Brownlow works “Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic” and “The Tramp and the Dictator.”

See him below in the trailer for “Imaginary Witness”:

Rest in peace, Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

About Christopher Campbell
I am a blogger for Documentary Channel and Movies.com, where I write the Doc Talk column. I prefer real stories to fake ones. I tweet here: @thefilmcynic

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