It’s a fine line that historically inclined documentaries about assassinations like Roads to Memphis have to walk, assaying the actions and motivations of their unpalatable subjects without raising them to the same venerated level of those whom they slew.
Running 82 minutes, this PBS American Experience offering, part of the longest-running history series on TV, artfully and movingly does just that, providing a sober look at the events leading up to and immediately following the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without getting into killer James Earl Ray’s recantation of his guilty plea and his labyrinthine (and dubious) claims of complicity in a conspiracy, nor his brief 1977 escape from prison and the King family’s subsequent embrace of the belief that he had nothing to do with the murder. Instead, built around stirring reminiscences from King’s inner circle and some of the officials involved in Ray’s capture and
prosecution, as well as other talking heads, Emmy Award-winning director Stephen Ives’ Roads to Memphis provides an important snapshot of a seething and turbulent time and place in American society.
Jesse Jackson is notably absent from the interviewee roster of former aides to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning preacher, but Samuel Kyles, Roger Wilkins and Andrew Young (who notes, “We were never concerned with who killed Martin Luther King, but what killed Martin Luther King”) all offer valuable contextual detail, both in terms of King’s physical movements and actions, but also what was going on in his head in the weeks and days leading up to his death. Similarly, the roster of “establishment” talking heads is articulate and insightful, including among its ranks former CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, writer Gerald Posner, historian Wayne Flynt and Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin. Most arresting, however, might just be some of the Memphis sanitation workers whose labor strike brought King to their town. Their recollections of their interactions with King, including his remarks to a packed church congregation the rainy evening before his death, put a powerful personal sheen on this documentary, giving it an emotional punch to match its academic insight.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Roads to Memphis comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language stereo audio track. Divided into 11 chapters, the title includes an eight-minute extended interview session with aforementioned author Sides, a Memphis native who, though only six or seven years old at the time, recalls being pulled out of school and taken out of town by his parents in the days following the shooting, since they feared more violence to come. To purchase the DVD, phone (800) PLAY-PBS, or simply click here. Or, to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)