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HBO’s ‘King in the Wilderness’ Offers New Insight Into Martin Luther King Jr.’s Darkest Days

It is incredibly difficult to make a documentary on a high-profile subject that feels fresh; these kinds of films often either get caught up in chronicling every single life detail or rehash facts that are already well-known, rendering the viewing experience largely unnecessary. HBO‘s King in the Wilderness does not fall victim to these plights. Instead, it blows right past them, establishing its own unique tone from the very beginning and providing new insight to final years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, King was assassinated in Memphis. Almost fifty years later, King’s friends sat down to “recall the last years of his life”, and the result is King in the Wilderness, a truly remarkable documentary. While King’s achievements and historical significance are still very much a part of today’s discourse, King in the Wilderness seeks to bring a little more humanity to the man we’ve placed up high on a pedestal, and does something special in the process. The film could easily go the route of continually placing high praise on him and elevating him further, but when his friends discuss him, they describe a man like any other, a man who worked tirelessly for justice but privately battled his own demons.

Directed by Peter Kunhardt, King in the Wilderness doesn’t waste any time trying to get viewers up to speed with the biographical details of King’s life. Instead, we’re shown King at a lower moment, long after he’s smiled for all the photos we’ve seen a million times. “The most difficult time in his life was the 18 months before the assassination,” says Clarence Jones, King’s personal lawyer. Seeing those difficult days play out through archival footage and the words of his peers is totally compelling, a strange love letter to the secret struggle that King endured. He quietly battled self-doubt, dealt with the grueling nature of his movement’s infighting, and bore the physical and emotional weight of leading.

King knew every move he made would be scrutinized, and just like any other human being, he was affected by it. He dreamed of fighting against poverty and pushing the movement forward, but apparently felt depressed by the backlash to his work. There was never really a way for him to win, and the way that King in the Wilderness illustrates this is absolutely captivating. With the help of voices like Jones, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and more, we get an intimate look at the final conflicted months of King’s life, and it’s nothing short of riveting.

“I’m just not telling stories. I’m telling you what happened,” says Xernona Clayton as the film opens. Clayton’s words evidently establish the foundation for King in the Wilderness for the entirety of its duration, and that’s exactly why it works. We aren’t listening to historians or narrators attempt to explain what happened through a historical lens. We’re hearing King in his own words, hearing about the man from the people who understood him best. These are people that knew the man, loved the man, fought with the man. By allowing us to hear what happened from the people closest to King, King in the Wilderness breaks new ground and paints a revealing, empathetic portrait in the process.

King in the Wilderness premieres on HBO Monday, April 2 at 8 p.m. ET. 

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