It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. He was just 39 years old.
King was part of a generation of courageous, determined and energetic civil rights leaders. Some are gone. Others are alive — and still fighting for social justice.
But they’re in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They won’t be here forever. It’s fallen to a new generation to pass along their stories — and keep their hopes and dreams alive.
Trey Ellis is one of those storytellers. The Westporter is a leading voice of the African American experience.
He’s written movies, books, TV shows and a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. He’s been a political pundit, social critic and Huffington Post contributor; won a Peabody and been nominated for an Emmy.
He teaches at Columbia University, was a non-resident fellow at Harvard, and taught or lectured at Yale, NYU, and in Brazil and France.
But his most recent project was extra-special. He served as executive producer for “King in the Wilderness.” The 2-hour documentary showed a side of the civil rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner that’s seldom discussed today: a conflicted leader who at the time of his death was assailed by critics on both the left and right.
Ellis spent a year crisscrossing the country, interviewing 17 men and women who lived, breathed and molded the civil rights movement.
John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Joan Baez — all spoke with candor and insight about Martin Luther King. Ellis also interviewed unsung heroes of the movement, like Diane Nash.
This Wednesday (June 13, 7 p.m., Bowtie Cinema, 542 Westport Avenue, Norwalk), the Westport Library and TEAM Westport host a free screening of the film. It premiered in January at Sundance, then was shown at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and New York’s Riverside Church, before airing on HBO in April.
Making the film was “the experience of a lifetime,” Ellis says. He held intimate conversations with men and women who shaped our nation’s history. He worked with rare archival footage, some of it never before seen by the public.
He helped bring nuance — and human frailty — to a man who has become shrouded in myth.
In the final years of his life, which the documentary focuses on, King was “more radical, and more disregarded” than most of us remember, or realize, says Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and NPR.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow notes, “I consider myself kind of a King fanatic, King-ophile … And I was just shocked by how much I leaned, how much new footage I had never seen.”
Wednesday’s Bowtie screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with Ellis.
The executive producer is proud of his film. And — because he’s a professor too — he’s eager to put his work in a larger context.
“With the state of the nation so fractured,” Ellis says, “‘King in the Wilderness’ seems ripped from today’s headlines.”