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King in the Wilderness a Haunting Look Back at MLK’s Final Years

Emmy-winning CAS alum is editor of new HBO documentary

  • Emmy winner Maya Mumma (CAS’01) coedited the new documentary King in the Wilderness
  • The HBO film chronicles the final three years of King’s life
  • Mumma stitched together hours of interviews and archival footage of King’s advisors and friends

When the filmmakers behind HBO’s new documentary King in the Wilderness first began wading through television news stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) from his assassination to the present, they found that all of them defined him solely by his iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. “That kind of drumming into the nation’s consciousness turned him into a wooden figure,” the film’s Emmy-winning director, Peter Kunhardt, said in a recent interview.

Maya Mumma

Emmy winner Maya Mumma (CAS’01) coedited the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Mumma

King in the Wilderness sets out to rectify that. It chronicles the final three years of King’s life, 1965 to 1968, a period of turmoil and self-doubt, and what emerges is a complex, poignant portrait of the civil rights leader. Coedited by Maya Mumma (CAS’01), the film, which began airing last Monday on HBO and is now available on HBOGo and On Demand, focuses on King’s frequent criticism by both sides of the political spectrum, heckled by blacks during the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, attacked for his opposition to the Vietnam War by conservatives. It covers his damaged relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, clashes with members of his own civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his struggles with depression. Archival footage of King is interspliced with interviews with close colleagues and friends, among them civil rights activists Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and entertainers Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, who were deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

The documentary premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has earned critical kudos. “King in the Wilderness is a searing film because it takes Martin Luther King, Jr., down from the mountaintop,” notes a review in Variety. “You glimpse the real glory of who he was: not a walking monument but a human being with fear, humor, guts, and (amazing) grace under pressure.” According to the LA Times, the film is “an exceptional documentary”; it singled out the editing: the “interviews are movingly stitched together by editors Maya Mumma and Steven Golliday and intercut with smartly chosen newsreel material.”

BU Today spoke recently with Mumma, who won an LA Film Critics Award and an Emmy for the Academy Award winner O.J.: Made in America. Her other films include the documentary Restrepo, 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner; Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley; the Peabody Award–winning Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown; and the Netflix original series Daughters of Destiny.

Mumma, who earned a bachelor’s in social anthropology from BU and a master’s in media studies from the New School, has taught filmmaking in the New York City public schools and was a mentor for the Firelight Media Documentary Lab and the Karen Schmeer (CAS’92) Film Editing Fellowship.

BU Today: Before the film aired on HBO, you attended several screenings. What was the film’s reception like?

Mumma: We did a big screening in New York at Riverside Church, where MLK gave his 1967 Vietnam speech. It was crazy. We went down to DC the next day and screened it at the African American Museum there, and at Sundance.

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I think the biggest thing is hearing it and experiencing it with people who are very emotionally moved by being a part of his life for these two hours, experiencing a different side of King. I think we see a little more personal side of him, so the audience connects to him differently. By the time we get to the assassination, they feel like they know him so much more.

I understand that all of the documentary’s interviews are available in their entirety on HBO’s website.

Yeah, I don’t know of other films that have done that; it’s very unusual. There was this feeling early on in conducting the interviews that they may be the most comprehensive ones with some of these people for the rest of their lives. I think our oldest interviewee was 93, so they’re all kind of in their twilight years.

They were more open and less guarded, I think, than in the past. They had time to reflect about King and gave us these really unique interviews. We had so much stuff to work with that the public doesn’t get to see. So to give a little back so people can experience some of what we saw in making the film is really rewarding I think.

Were you sent the interviews as they came in? How did you go about cutting them down?

When we started, a handful of interviews had been shot. Some people were really hard to track down—most were retired and living all over the country. The team had to find people who could lend their voices, people who maybe weren’t on the ground with King every day, but were involved in a particular part of the story, of the movement. A constant flow of material was coming into the edit room, but about halfway through the editing process we had all the major interviews completed.

Tell us how you stitched it all together to form a cohesive narrative.

We started at the beginning with a roadmap of the film’s structure, because we knew it would focus on the last three years of his life, so we looked at the major events of those years. We knew we were going to start with the Watts Riots, because that was really a change, both with King’s movement, but also in America. The Chicano Movement was major, so we knew we were going to cover that, when King came out against the war in Vietnam, and the Poor People’s Campaign—these were all major events of his movement we wanted to cover. So we looked through both the interviews and the archival footage to tell those stories.

We started with King, all of his interviews and speeches, because he is the film’s main subject, in essence the main character. To give his words as much weight as everybody else’s, I treated him as if he were an interview subject, so he was constantly in dialogue in the interviews that were showing. He was telling part of the story, and the person with him filled in the rest of the story, in the present day.

What was it like to work with this archival footage, some that has rarely been seen?

Our archivist at first just did a big sweep. She tried to find in the footage everybody we were going to interview. This was pretty challenging for some of them: some people you just catch a glimpse or find a photograph of. Then there were the amazing moments when you realize somebody standing next to King is one of your major subjects. For me that was really important, because the film in some ways takes place today. It’s a lot of people looking back at King, and so having their faces and the present day kind of meld with them in the past was something I was trying to bring out as much as possible. We shot the interviews in this intimate portrait style, so you got to know their faces in a much more intimate, first-person way.

In my favorite one, at the end of the funeral, Andrew Young talks about how the movement splintered and they didn’t know what to do after that, and there’s this shot of him kind of walking at the funeral and he comes and stands next to MLK’s father. It’s my favorite shot because he looks so young in that footage, and you just realize how much he’d already been through at that point in his life.

How did you and coeditor Steven Golliday divide the editing for the film?

We started with these major plot points we knew there was lots of archival material for. So we split it up chronologically by story point. I worked on everything up to Vietnam, which is a bit of a turning point in King’s story, and Steven took Vietnam, the Poor People’s Campaign, and Memphis. And then I circled around on the other side with the assassination through to the end.

The film marches toward King’s assassination, and viewers feel a mounting sense of both dread and suspense. Can you talk about how you created that mood?

One of the big things we wanted to do was to film at the Lorraine Motel [where King was assassinated, now the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel]. Ours was the only film that’s been given access to film inside the rooms there. We wanted to try and tell the story slightly differently, because a lot of people have seen the famous image of the people pointing from the balcony where the shooter was coming from.

There was something about filming at the Lorraine Motel and being in the immediacy of it that felt very personal. Like seeing the bed and King’s leftover coffee and his newspaper; everything is preserved exactly as it was that day. At the same time, one of the major driving forces of the film was to keep this personal and intimate view of King through his friends. They were all there with him that day; they all experienced it with him. Keeping them as the driving storytellers of that was intentional, to keep you going with the blow-by-blow of everything they did that day.

Previously in Memphis, they’d been disappointed because King was part of what had been a violent march and they were there to fix it, they were on their feet again and excited. And then out of nowhere, King is assassinated. We wanted to let them guide us through it instead of jumping straight through a news report that said he was killed.

That is the value of our film: we wanted it to be from the viewpoint of the people who experienced it. Using them to tell the story ramped up the tension.

They were joking around and King was running upstairs to put a suit on and Jesse Jackson was yelling at him from up there, and the assassination came out of nowhere. To make it feel tense, we made a point of not using the imagery that people had seen before. I don’t know if audience members felt like this, but I wanted people to forget this was going to happen. I think that helps build tension—you just spent two hours with this person and you don’t want this to happen, because you have this new understanding that this shouldn’t happen and yet you know it’s going to. That’s part of the inherent tension and drama of history itself, too.

A lot of the documentaries you’ve done have focused on minorities. Is this by design or a coincidence?

It’s a little bit of both. It’s interesting, I think, in the world we work in, that you do one film and then people trying to do a similar one see yours and contact you, saying, oh, if you’ve tackled that subject then you can tackle my film’s. I think I got into it at first just by chance, but also it’s something about the ability to look at larger ideas of our country and culture through the lens of one person. And if that person has obstacles and challenges and is perhaps in a community seen as different or marginalized, then I think we’re able to look at our culture differently through that person. In a way that’s why I think it’s a coincidence.

I did a film on James Brown, who was such a touchstone in American culture and so influenced by culture and also an influencer on culture, and the same thing with O.J. Simpson, where so much came together around him as a figure, as a black man in America. Looking at someone who has to navigate America slightly differently is a much more valuable story to investigate in some ways, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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