Activists and artists alike greet Wednesday (April 4), the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a chance to fight the Whitewashing of his legacy. Prolific writer and university educator Trey Ellis does so as an executive producer of “King in the Wilderness,” a new documentary that premiered on HBO Monday.

As Ellis explained to Colorlines, “King in the Wilderness” separates itself from other retrospectives by focusing on the last three years of his life—a frequently overlooked period marked by tremendous conflict. The film explores how King endured criticism from White supremacists, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and from Black activists who saw his tactics as too conciliatory. Interviewees such as Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) go behind simplistic headlines to show King in all of his complexity. We spoke to Ellis about his involvement with the film, his own relationship with King’s legacy and why he and his colleagues called the documentary “King in the Wilderness.” 

You’re best known as a writer and satirist. How did you get involved with “King in the Wilderness”?

I’ve known Henry Louis Gates for a long time, and he worked with director Peter Kunhardt for a while. I just got a call out of the blue asking, “Hey, would you be interested in doing interviews with these people?” I heard that I would be working with [historian/producer] Taylor Branch and Kunhardt and interviewing people like John Lewis, so of course I said “yes” right away. I started as a journalist for Newsweek and The Huffington Post. I brought a lot of those skills, plus my narrative filmmaking skills, into my interviews.

Why does the film focus on the last years of King’s life?

He’s somebody that everybody thinks they know really well, the same way we know George Washington or Abe Lincoln at this point. When we first told people we were doing this documentary, they would roll their eyes and think of it as a public service announcement. But having been a student of the real King through my college professor Clay Carson, who was in charge of the King papers at Stanford University, I knew that his legacy was much more complicated. When we decided on talking about the last years of his life, I thought that it would be an interesting way to re-contextualize King—especially in this era, with the election of Donald Trump and the rise of White nationalism. This is the time for the real King to emerge.

We wanted to show a few key things. One, his commitment to non-violence as the best way to effect radical change, which he battled over with militants. His tactics have stood the test of time, with hundreds of thousands of youths marching on Washington to end gun violence two weeks ago. His tactics are with us now, more than ever, and I think we forget that. We also talk about how he, by the time he dies, is at his least popular among Black and White folks, and the media. That’s why it’s called “King in the Wilderness.” You see Stokely Carmichael at his funeral—everybody wants a piece of him. The moment after the bullet hits him, people who wanted nothing to do with him want to claim his legacy.

Photo: Provided by Sunshine Sachs Black man in blue shirt and brown blazer in front of green trees and grey sky Trey Ellis

Some of your most famous work focuses on how African Americans’ identity and relationship to history and culture has changed over time. Describe your own relationship with King’s legacy. Did working on “King in the Wilderness” impact that connection?

It certainly has. I was born in 1962, and my dad actually went to the March on Washington and left early because he was bored. [Laughs.] As a kid, I thought King was a great guy, but I always thought of myself as more of a Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael fan—I would later see Stokely speak in college. I didn’t know what Dr. King had to offer me until I started studying and re-evaluating him in college.

I learned so much more about him through this documentary. I talked to all these people, for two to four hours, about the personal side to this man. What he’s done for me is taught me to be less despairing. His own advisory team were all pulling at him, the media was attacking him, Blacks thought he was a sellout, Whites thought that he was a commie, and what did he do? He just kept his head down and did the work. That inspired me to keep doing the work and not look up so much to say, “Are we there yet?”

“King in the Wilderness” debuted two days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination. It’s one of many retrospectives timed to commemorate this morbid event. Did you wrestle with the possibility that this film could appear exploitative?

Peter Kunhardt knew that when you come up on this kind of anniversary, people will do stories around it. Our thought was to do it right. It’s not exploiting the spotlight on the event, but using it to correct a pretty significant wrong—that this man’s legacy has been pulled and twisted in all sorts of directions. You so often hear conservatives who have said or would’ve said terrible things about him if they had been alive at the time saying things like, “If he were alive, he would be against affirmative action.” They reduce everything to absurdity. I don’t think it’s morbid either, because the film really is a celebration of his life. We knew that the spotlight would be on him at this moment, so we thought we could do some good.

“King in the Wilderness” premiered April 2 on HBO. Subscribers can stream the documentary via HBOgo.com or the HBO Go mobile app.