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Roads to Memphis (American Experience) (DVD Review)

23 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

The operative word in this recent “American Experience” presentation for PBS is “Roads” — plural. That’s because the subject here is events leading up to their fateful (and fatal) meeting of two men whose paths should never have crossed in a city not usually known for politics.

Most people probably know or even remember the barebones basics about convicted Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray — that he was a shiftless drifter when not in prison. And that the civil rights leader — who, to put it mildly, was preoccupied with other matters — was in Memphis to help impoverished people of all stripes but specifically the city’s predominantly black sanitation workers.

What this 83-minute documentary adds is context. Ray didn’t come from a background that was merely impoverished. His family was perhaps the poorest of an Illinois neighborhood’s most destitute — and at a young age, he so repulsed one of his teachers that she put it in writing. Since we can see that that the adult Ray, at least, was not a bad-looking guy, some really ugly seeds had to have been planted at an early age.

While in the Missouri State Penitentiary and enticed by George Wallace’s political ascension to the national arena, Ray masterminded a rather ingenious escape worthy of John Dillinger — embarking on a zig-zag that included stops in Chicago, Alabama and Los Angeles. During this period — and here it gets interesting because the narrative doesn’t quite synch with the standard on-the-lam yarn — he took dancing lessons and went to bartender’s school. The latter experience eventually helped to seal his eventual doom because it provided a photographic record of someone whose identity remained a mystery for weeks after the assassination.

Meanwhile, King’s advisers warned that his plate was too full to divert time to the sanitation workers. But we’re shown white Memphis authority figures patronizing these municipal employees — after both sides in the dispute had seen two of the latter ground up in the mashing mechanism of a garbage truck when they’d crawled inside seeking minimum warmth. One interviewed former worker talks of not just terrible pay but of negative fringe benefits. There were no showers at work, and the smell of these carless employees offended other passengers when they tried to take the bus after a long day. The only solution was to ankle it home — for miles.

Roads is full of dramatic news footage from the day that someone(s) with vision thankfully preserved — also fabricated transitional filler (not exactly harmful but cheap and distracting) that are more the province of the History Channel than of the classier “Experience” presentations. These include our being shown cans of Schlitz (this was apparently a major beverage of choice for Ray) in shots supposedly taking place in the assassin’s flophouse-of-week. When the same documentary is accomplished enough to boast eyewitness accounts from colleagues who were near King when he was shot on the balcony of his Memphis motel, this kind of play-around really grates.

Paying little heed to conspiracy theories, this portrait quotes someone as saying all physical evidence and all circumstantial evidence points to Ray (who died in prison in 1998) as the perpetrator. The anti-King rhetoric we see from Wallace remains offensive and, as ever, blindly on the wrong side of history. Ditto for the footage shown of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, still in the U.S. Senate 42 years later and whose modified for the better racial/political trajectories over this subsequent period could support its own PBS documentary.

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