Retracing two men’s roads to Memphis

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 3, 2010

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There are few moments in the American experience as awful as the one on April 4, 1968, when a fugitive from justice named James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King Jr. If the ’60s as a state of mind might be said to have begun with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then it could just as plausibly be said to have ended with that other political murder four years later.

“Roads to Memphis’’ shows how each man came to be at that place at that time. The year before, Ray had escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary. He had been serving time for armed robbery. On the lam, he went from Chicago to Canada to Alabama to Mexico to Los Angeles. Along the way he bought a white Mustang and did volunteer work for George Wallace’s nascent presidential campaign.

Part of the fascination of the King assassination is the richness of its cast of characters. Besides Wallace, there was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover hated King, yet to protect the reputation of his beloved FBI he presided over what was the largest manhunt in US history in pursuit of King’s murderer. Pressing his agents on the investigation, he ordered that the fingerprints found on the murder rifle be checked against those of every known fugitive — 53,000 sets of prints. In an astonishing bit of luck, a match was found on the 700th.

There were King aides, such as Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young. Young is among the talking heads heard in tonight’s broadcast, as are Dan Rather, former US Senator Harris Wofford, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and the late leader of the NAACP Benjamin Hooks.

The King who came to Memphis was in a very different position from the man who’d delivered his “I Have a Dream’’ speech at the March on Washington less than five years earlier. The times had changed, growing darker and less hopeful, and so had King. He had come out against the Vietnam War a year earlier (something that goes unmentioned in “Roads to Memphis’’), and was now about to mount a Poor People’s Campaign seeking economic as well as racial justice. What brought him to Memphis was a strike by city sanitation workers. He came there to support their demands.

The documentary, which was produced and directed by Stephen Ives, cuts back and forth between Ray and King. It’s a sensible, perhaps inevitable, approach. But the vast disparity between the two men, as well as the lack of footage of Ray before his arrest (two months after the assassination, in London), makes for a fundamental imbalance.

That imbalance isn’t helped by frequent resort to reenactments of Ray’s life on the run prior to King’s murder. He drives his Mustang. He drinks cans of Schlitz. He watches TV in his flophouse room. He smokes (very atmospheric).

The reenactments are handled capably, even slickly — which makes their presence all the ghastlier. Things reach a nadir when we watch King deliver his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’’ speech less than 24 hours before his death. It’s a remarkable piece of oratory (even by King’s standards), made almost unbearably moving by the knowledge of what’s about to happen. There’s footage of King giving the speech. There’s footage of the crowd as it listens. Both are transfixing.

Not transfixing enough, apparently. Twice during the speech the documentary cuts away to the actor who plays Ray (he remains silent throughout the documentary, and we never see his face). He’s shown in noirish silhouette behind a rain-streaked window. You can almost hear someone at a production meeting announcing, “Hey, everybody, I’ve got this incredibly great idea to make that King speech work better visually!’’

As history, the cutaways are false. As filmmaking, they’re self-indulgent. As artistry, they’re fatuous. You’d think you were watching some hyped-up slop on the History Channel, except that even the History Channel knows better than to be so stupid.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

Roads to Memphis
On: WGBH Channel 2
Time: Tonight, 9-10:30