How a New Film on Dr. Martin Luther King Resonates Today

By A.J. Katz 

NBC News hosted a preview of its original documentary film Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and the Media last night at the Paley Center in New York.

NBC News chairman Andrew Lack is the executive producer of the film. He was joined on-stage by MSNBC AM Joy host Joy Reid, who provides her insights throughout the special, along with producers/directors Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt narrated the film, and moderated last night’s panel.

A self-described “grandson of Mississippi,” Lack said he had expressed interest in producing a documentary like this for over a decade, and recalled his college days in Boston, where he held up protest signs during the civil rights movement and Vietnam era.


“We all have these personal histories, and the fact that it was [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s 50th made sense for us to finally go ahead and give it a shot now,” said Lack. “Our team at NBC News, as well as Phil and Rachel did a great job with this.”

King and leaders of the civil rights movement used the power of print and visual media, especially TV, to inform the rest of the country of the racism and violence perpetrated against African Americans.

“What the civil rights movement understood, and what I think the Black Lives Matter movement also understands, is that we are a visual society and visual creatures,” said Reid.

She noted that when Emmitt Till was lynched in 1955, Dr. King was only 26 and young enough and media savvy enough to know what type of protesting would prove the most effective in garnering nationwide attention. It would be television, not print, that was the most effective way to expose the wider American public to the violence that was being inflicted on African Americans.

Many of the protests he set up were specifically tailored to attract attention from television news networks.

“King had an innate sense of how to play the story to the public,” added Lack.

The film also connected the past with the present. It opened with Philando Castile, the man shot to death during what appeared to have been a routine stop on the side of the road in Minnesota. His fiance shot a Facebook video of the ordeal, showing how covering racial inequality in real-time has evolved from King’s day.

“Everyone now has a device and the power to control the narrative, in some sense,” said Holt.

The panel connects how Dr. King and others from his generation were so effectively able to bring media attention to their cause to how the Parkland students are spreading their message through TV news.

Reid says the Parkland kids acknowledge that their stories are so powerful is because they’re white. They’re trying to get the public to look at them as if they’re like their own children.

“They look the part,” said Reid. “These are like the Sandy Hook kids, except they’re old enough to tweet, to go on Facebook, to speak for themselves…half of them are theater students, and one of them is the managing editor of the school paper.

They’re hard to beat because they’re cohesive, media-savvy and media trained in a way,” Reid continued.

Lack added, “We need to report more deeply on what’s going on with the kids this Saturday, and we need to try and look at the crowds and get involved with what they’re saying and hearing, and find where the generational differences are and the nuances of how they’re assembling and whether they’re going to be able to take it to the next level…

“The deeper we go and the more time we spend following these movements…and on a daily basis, we just gotta get more people out there,” he continued.

The two-hour special will air on NBC Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, which happens to be hours after the March for Our Lives demonstrations conclude. The special re-airs on MSNBC Sunday night.