When new President Barack Obama stepped outside his well-armored SUV on Inauguration Day to walk awhile down a crowd-lined street, I can't have been the only one watching to have held his breath.
For reasons both superficial and deep, orchestrated and inevitable, it was easy to see Obama's own March on Washington as a fulfillment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. But King made another speech the night before he died, five years later, in Memphis, Tenn., a speech full of hope and death that provides the climax of -- though not the culmination to -- "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," a powerful, Oscar-nominated short film premiering tonight on HBO.
The film is focused mainly on the memories of Memphis preacher Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who, along with the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, spent King's last hour with him and who was the only other person on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when King was shot.
"I knew it was more than coincidence," Kyles says here, "I just didn't know what." The reason was finally, divinely revealed to him, he says, and the film itself embodies it: He was there to be a witness, and to bear witness.
It was a sanitation workers strike that brought King to Memphis twice in the spring of 1968, a movement organized around the slogan "I Am a Man" -- "as profound psychologically as a play by Shakespeare, as a great novel by Langston Hughes or a poem" says Benjamin Hooks (later president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and a Memphis judge at the time). The first march ended badly, in violence and looting -- the only protest in King's career to have done so -- and he returned to the city to try to get it right, a bomb threat delaying his plane on the way.
Director Adam Pertofsky, whose credits seem mostly to be in advertising, clearly knows something about getting a point across in short order and that polish is a sign of respect -- "The Witness" honors its subject in part by looking good. This is not a definitive work; it isn't meant to answer every question about King's assassination or the history of the civil rights movement in Memphis, or even just about the strike itself. (The name James Earl Ray is never mentioned.) But that it's brief (32 minutes) and narrowly focused is all in its favor. We are in the age of the blockbuster documentary, but bigger is not always better. A string quartet can cut deeper than a symphony.
This is a chamber piece in which the dominant voice is, inevitably, King's own. On a stormy night in a huge, packed church, he gave a speech that seemed to presage the events of the following day: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. . . . I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
"He was so overcome we had to help him to his seat," says Kyles. "He had preached himself through the fear of death."
'The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306'
When: 8 tonight
Rating: Not rated