Road to Memphis: PBS Documentary is Filled with Potholes
By George E. Curry
On Tuesday night, (May 3) PBS’s “American Experience” series will premiere Road to Memphis, a 2-hour documentary on the interconnected final days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his assassin, James Earl Ray. As one who has read every major book on the King assassination, I was looking forward to this movie, which is based on the book, Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides (Doubleday).
I was provided both a DVD of the film as well as a bound galley of Sides’ book. The author is prominently featured in the documentary and both projects take the same approach: Track events in the lives of King and Ray leading up to April 4, 1968 and present bits of each until their lives cross in dramatic fashion in Memphis. In the end, James Earl Ray, who had used numerous aliases, including Eric Galt and Ramon Sneyd, fired a shot from a flop house, killing the civil rights movement’s most beloved figure as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
In theory, the filmmaker Stephen Ives’ approach should have worked. What’s more compelling than having the lives of a Black civil rights icon and a White career criminal come together in a dramatic way that shocked the nation and led to a world-wide manhunt for James Earl Ray? Judging from Road to Memphis, we’ll never know.
To their credit, the film’s publicists acknowledge that the film is “neither a strict biography of Ray, nor a mere recapitulation of familiar highlights from King’s final months.” However, the documentary fails to live up to the hype that it creates “a tense, complex, and riveting, crosscut narrative of a killer and his prey.”
There is nothing riveting about this film. Part of the problem is that period footage of King and Ray go only so far. The gaps are filled by illustrations, most of them unimaginative. For comparison, look at the recently aired MSNBC special, The McVeigh Tapes: Confession of an American Terrorist. Because the special was based on a series of unaired jailhouse interviews with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the producers faced an even larger challenge than the maker of Road to Memphis. The McVeigh project succeeded to a surprising degree because the illustrations and graphics were so sharp; it was frequently difficult to distinguish between the work of illustrators and real-life photos. Road to Memphis, on the other hand, is filled with sub-par illustrations, giving the feel of clip-art. Not very good clip-art at that.
The film’s second problem is that so much is already known about the King assassination and the subsequent hunt of Ray, a four-time loser and virulent racist. For example, it’s no secret that Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City by hiding in a bread box that was being transported out of the prison. His prints were found on the murder weapon, binoculars, a can of beer and many other items linking him to King’s death. Additionally, handwriting analysis and eyewitnesses were able to connect Ray with the murder weapon and Ford Mustang used in his escape. With limited funds – and even more limited intelligence – few experts believe that Ray could have traveled across the country, visit Mexico, Canada, Portugal and London, where he was finally captured, without the assistance of others who have yet to be brought to trial.
Even with its shortcomings, watching the film is not a total waste of time. Many of the major players – Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, whose home King was preparing to visit for dinner; Andrew Young and then-Attorney General Ramsey Clark, among others – offer insightful commentary into the lives of King, Ray and the events of April 4, 1968.
Arthur Hanes, Ray’s first attorney and a longtime lawyer for members of the Ku Klux Klan, explained: “In those days, White men had pride in their race because frequently that’s the only thing they could have pride in. The Rays may have had absolutely nothing, but in those days and times, at least they could say they were White.”
Andy Young, a King senior aide, stated: “From the time Martin was 25 years old, he almost never went a week when his life wasn’t threatened. His house was bombed, he was stabbed. It gave him a sense of inevitability of death.”
The appearance of Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP, in the film can catch viewers off guard. He died a couple of weeks ago and seeing and hearing him on TV so soon after his death can be disquieting. A gray-haired Hooks says, “He didn’t think it made any sense to be scared all the time and he wasn’t. He would not let any of his staff that traveled with him carry a pistol or a blackjack. He did not want anybody to have any weapon of force or retaliation because it violated his principle of nonviolence. That was his way of life. Not a theory, a way of life.”
I wish the film had explored the insistence by King family members that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that James Early Ray did not kill Martin Luther King, Jr. In a videotaped prison visit with Ray in 1997, Dexter King, then president of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said: “I want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?” Ray replied, “No, no, I didn’t, no.” Dexter King then stated. “I believe you, and my family believes you.”
If Road to Memphis had taken an exit on that ramp and pressed Dexter King on his assertion that Ray had nothing to do with his father’s assassination, that would have been riveting television.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.