Originally released in 1978 as a made-for-television miniseries, King remains a remarkable achievement, not only as a product of television but as a biopic that manages not to fall victim to the genre's many traps. The film covers the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Paul Winfield) from his meeting of his future wife, Coretta (Cicely Tyson), to his assassination in 1968.
Following the standard design of all biopics, King touches primarily on the bigger events of the civil-rights icon's life--his leadership during the Selma bus boycott, his meetings with presidents, the march on Washington that culminated with his "I Have a Dream" speech. But with a running time of over four hours, the film is given the opportunity to breathe, flowing with a solid pace and yet retaining enough substance to work, abbreviated as the moments it portrays may be. Even if King were made for the big screen with a larger budget, I don't think it could have been done any better than it was.
Written and directed by Abby Mann, King stands out as an edgy and comprehensive film, despite being confined to made-for-television status. Mann--who already had a well-established career as a provocative writer (as creator of Kojak, among other work), and who actually began working with Dr. King on the script before the leader was murdered--does not shy away from topics like King's rumored marital indiscretions or the FBI's efforts to destroy him.
Paul Winfield gives what is easily one of the best performances of his career as Martin Luther King. With a person as complex and charismatic as King, it would be easy for him to appear in the film as a series of clichés pasted together from images already locked into the public consciousness. But with Mann's script serving as a foundation, Winfield is able to transform himself into a three-dimensional character with depth and complexity. He is surrounded by a cast of capable actors that includes Tyson, Ernie Hudson, Ossie Davis and Dick Anthony Williams in a scene-stealing cameo as Malcolm X, but it is upon Winfield's shoulders that the weight of the movie rests and through his performance that it finds its success.
Recently released on DVD as a special multi-disc set, King also includes four documentary featurettes. "In Conversation with Tony Bennett and Abby Mann" features the famed entertainer and the writer-director discussing their relationship with Martin Luther King and their involvement with the civil-rights movement. Both "The Struggle" and "The Civil Rights Movement" rely primarily on interview footage with Ossie Davis, who appears in King as Martin Luther King Sr., and who was also very active in the crusade for civil rights. "Recreating History: The Making of King" doesn't go as far behind the scenes as one might hope, but at the same time it remains informative and moving. In it, Mann discusses working with Martin Luther King and explains how the success of Kojak allowed him to realize King after working on the project for over a decade.