Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of any photographic material used unless otherwise noted. This blog is intended for purposes of film criticism, commentary, and humor. If you wish to start this journey from the beginning, start with the prologue here.
Alright, so you’re familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr., right?
So, long story short, after slavery was abolished, as I pointed out in my review for Life, America managed to preserve forms of slavery decades afterward. Because after 600,000 dead soldiers, we somehow still couldn’t quite shake our addiction to forcing people to work for free. At the same time, black people’s rights were severely restricted under new laws upheld by an 1896 Supreme Court case that decided these laws were constitutional. Segregating public bathrooms, railcars, water fountains, movie theatres, restaurants, public swimming pools, schools, and even entire neighborhoods and towns by race was found to be legal under one simple premise of legal logic: Separate but equal.
The logic went that so long as facilities provided to each race were equal in quality and function, then those facilities could be legally segregated by race. It’s like separating the laundry by color so long as both got equal amounts of detergent and then not quite following through on that last part. At least, that’s how Randall Wallace would explain segregation.
God, I hate that movie.
Anyway, this period of legal racial segregation came to be known as Jim Crow.
A series of movements to end racial segregation occurred in the 20th century, the most famous of which happened in the 1950s and 1960s. It would be more accurate to say this movement was lead by many great activists: Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Diane Nash, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Thurgood Marshall, etc. Hell, Marshall’s mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, arguably the one man most responsible for defeating de jure racial segregation, died in 1950 before the end of Jim Crow would become reality. He isn’t called “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” for nothing.
If we’re being completely honest, history books and commemorations are like that brat in your kindergarten class that never wanted to share. It’s why over thirty Roman senators could knife Caesar in the back, but the only one everyone remembers is Brutus.
So, as a result, the Big Name of the civil rights movement was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This guy was the top dog, the head honcho, the big cheese. If the civil rights movement was a train, King was the conductor. If the civil rights movement was a fancy restaurant, King was the head chef in the big, poofy hat. If the civil rights movement was the Starship Enterprise, King was the bald guy in the captain’s seat shouting, “Make it so!”
So, in 1983, in honor of his contributions to civil and human rights, a federal holiday set on the third Monday of every January was created in his honor.
The holiday wasn’t without controversy. When the U.S. Senate debated the bill making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a holiday, Republican senators Jessie Helms and John Porter East of North Carolina submitted a 300-page document as part of a filibuster against the bill. The contents of that document alleged King was a filthy pinko Commie cocksucker. Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, promptly called the document “a packet of filth,” threw it on the Senate floor, and stomped on it.
Actually, speaking of Dr. King, since his birthday is coming up, we should watch something to educate you more about the man!
He’s… not a monarch. King is just his last name.
Anyway, let’s take a look at Our Friend, Martin… the time-traveling animated children’s special.
We open with the R&B/hip-hop song “Imagine” by Salt-N-Pepa playing over a seagull flying through the sky. I’m going to highlight the lyrics for a moment:
Imagine if we could liiiiiive
Imagine that, imagine that
In this world without hate and prejudiiiiice!
Stop the violence, break the silence
Judgin’ each other is so craaaaazyyyyyy!
Crazy, yo, why you hate me?
We find the music is coming from the stereo of our main character Miles (voiced by Robert Ri’chard) and he’s on his way to school. Not before his mother (voiced by Angela Bassett) gives him a paper bag lunch and tells him she’s working late. Miles whines about this, saying his mother is a “slave” to her job.
… Maybe I’m still traumatized from A Cool Like That Christmas, but as phoned in as both Ri’chard’s and Bassett’s performances are, particularly when she lectures him about how his grades are more important than baseball… at least they’re not Orlando bad. What can I say? “But Moooooom…” irritates me a hell of a lot less than “This is wiggidy-wiggidy whack.” At least kids actually say the former in real life. Miles’ mother hands him a permission slip for a field trip and when he’s outside, he gets chased by a white bully named Kyle (voiced by Zachary Leigh). The chase goes through several yards with the speed of a snail on a treadmill running in reverse- okay, that’s an exaggeration, but what I’m saying is, the animation in this special is… slow. Like, Captain-Kirk-fighting-a-Gorn slow. I get that it’s an educational special. The budget probably wasn’t very high. But if the dialogue didn’t make it sound like an after-school special, then the way characters wave their arms and move their legs like they’re made of cement makes it look like an after-school special. Kyle catches up with Miles at a bus stop, demanding to know where he’s going.
No, really, I don’t get the comeback. Don’t get me wrong. Kyle’s dumb as a box of rocks, but Miles is supposed to be the witty one with lines like that? Like, is Kyle supposed to see that he has no brain in the mirror? Is he supposed to see the school bus in the mirror? Is he supposed to ask the mirror if he’s the fairest of them all?
Kyle is about to pummel Miles when-
… Did… that bus driver just try to run Kyle over?
He did! The bus destroys the bench and the bus stop sign where Kyle was originally standing! The fucker tried running a kid over! Bully or not, that bus driver intentionally endangered that fucking kid’s life!
Miles runs on the bus and escapes, leaving Kyle to be driven to school by his white trash dad (voiced by John Travolta). Now, that casting is hilarious in and of itself. The film establishes Kyle’s father as an asshole by his smoking habit.
At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, we meet Miles’ white friend Randy (voiced by Lucas Black, from the Fast and the Furious franchise) and a Latina girl named Maria (voiced by Jennifer Garcia). Their teacher Mrs. Clark (voiced by Susan Sarandon) assigns them all plus Kyle onto the same team for a history project. She talks to Miles about his report card, telling him he’s got an F in history class and turn that around or he’ll be held back and unable to pursue his dream of being a baseball player. He shows a dismissive attitude about Dr. King’s accomplishments while Mrs. Clark gives a little lecture about King’s accomplishments that’s big on the grandeur but vague on the specifics and I’m going to sound callous for saying this, but I’ve seen this formula before.
In the episode “I Have a Dream” from the sitcom Sister, Sister, Tamera doesn’t show any interest in or gratitude for black figures of the past, gets some stern lectures about it, dreams of going back in time to meet Jackie Robinson, Daniel Hale Williams, Bessie Coleman, Madam C.J. Walker, Dr. King, and Harriet Tubman, and returns to the present with a newfound appreciation of herself and her heritage.
Likewise, in the episode “I Had a Dream” (noticing a pattern here?) from the Disney Channel animated series The Proud Family, Penny Proud doesn’t show any interest in or gratitude for black figures of the past, gets some stern lectures about it, gets knocked unconscious and dreams of going back in time to 1955 to experience Jim Crow segregation, and returns to the present with a newfound appreciation of herself and her heritage.
I could go on and on, but I guess my point is, if this special manages to change up the formula and do something interesting with it, I’ll not only be surprised, I’ll kiss a man full on the mouth.
So, the class goes to the house Dr. King was born in, now a museum. The museum’s curator Mrs. Peck (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) leads the class on a tour, telling the students the house is magic. Randy takes that quite literally. Gee, wonder where that’s headed? Is Dr. King’s house a portal to Hogwarts?
Randy and Miles sneak in Dr. King’s bedroom, but when Mrs. Peck catches them, she lets them skulk around for a bit, cordoning the room off after winding a watch on the dresser back. Before long, Miles is messing with King’s baseball glove and light starts shooting from it.
They wind up in 1941, where they meet Martin as a kid playing baseball with two white boys. Randy wonders how he and Miles will get back to the future, but they put that off so Randy can ride around on a skateboard- wait just a damn minute!
The white boys’ mother Mrs. Dale (voiced by Ashley Judd) walks over to reprimand her boys about playing with “those coloreds.” When Miles talks back, Mrs. Dale calls him an “uppity colored brat” and drags her sons off by the ears. Randy yells at her, “Miles and I are best friends! We hang out all the time!”
Jesus Tapdancing Christ! This children’s special… actually had the balls to acknowledge lynching was a thing.
The moment gets a bit ruined when Miles can’t stand that Mrs. Dale sees him as “different” because of his skin color and hates him for it, so he resolves to hate her back and Martin puts his hands on Miles’ and Randy’s shoulders, asking them, “What’ll that solve? My daddy says hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear and hate is love.” Whatever you say, Yoda. Sorry, I’m not buying this kind of dialogue from a 12-year-old kid. Even if it is Martin Luther King, he’s at that age where his voice is getting deeper, he’s growing hair everywhere, and he’s getting more interested in girls. He’s not going to sound like Gandhi.
Miles and Randy touch the glove again and wind up on a railcar, having gone three years forward in time to when Martin is a 15-year-old on his way to college and voiced by Urkel from Family Matters.
A black train employee pulls a curtain down the middle of the car, telling Randy he should go to the Whites Only section now that the train is crossing the Mason-Dixon line into the South. The movie then cuts to black-and-white archive footage of racial segregation while King explains to Randy, “Negroes and whites don’t associate in the South.”
Randy tells King, “Well, like we said, it’s not like that where we’re from.” Meaning the late ’90s? … Sure, kid. Sure. Martin invites Randy and Miles over to his parents’ for dinner, telling them his mother’s cooking is “hot, tasty, and unsegregated.” There is a sex joke in there somewhere, but it’s the King family and I’m a classy motherfucker, so moving on. At dinner, when Martin Luther King, Sr. (voiced by Mufasa himself, James Earl Jones) asks Randy and Miles where they’re from, Randy winks at the camera and repeats what he said to the younger Martin on the train: “We’re from out of town.” Miles adds, “Yeah. Wayyyyy out of town.”
The younger Martin’s sister Christine is voiced by his real-life daughter Yolanda King, and she’s… adelightfulactresstryingthebestshecan. Miles and Randy get transported even further forward in time to 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycotts. Miles and Randy tell Martin they’ve been time-traveling through his life, and he laughs it off as “you silly kids and your TV shows.” After Martin explains the boycott started as a result of Rosa Parks being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, a man named Turner (voiced by Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson) runs up to Martin to inform him his house has been firebombed. We see archival footage of the actual wreckage from Martin’s house before returning to a genuinely affecting scene of Martin running up to comfort Coretta Scott King, voiced by Oprah Winfrey because it’s in her Faustian contract that she has to be in one civil rights-themed production every year for eternity. Turner starts riling the crowd gathered outside the house up, inciting them to rise up with violence against the “crackers.” Holy shit, this children’s special is getting serious.
Sigh. It’s not. White people just like to pretend it’s offensive because they have this obsession with false equivalencies. The origins of the term “cracker” as an ethnic slur are a matter of some debate, but regardless of where it came from, it’s the silliest-sounding slur on the planet. Oooh, a black man called you a cracker. What’s he going to do next, deny you a bank loan? You want to really offend a white person? To the point where they get legitimately frothing-at-the-mouth angry?
Call them a racist.
Anyway, Martin calms the crowd down by talking about Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence (while, of course, omitting Gandhi’s not-so-P.C. opinions of black people). Miles and Randy are transported again to 1963, where Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor (voiced appropriately by Megatron himself, Frank Welker) and the Birmingham police are setting dogs on black protesters and firemen are blasting kids with high-powered hoses that could break bones. For all my complaints about the slowness of the animation earlier, it really speeds up during these scenes. The editing and the pacing make this scene quite visceral.
Randy and Miles are transported back to their time, because the time-traveling baseball glove is beholden to the laws of a chronological plot, apparently. In class the next day, they show off their Civil Rights 101 knowledge and Mrs. Clark commends them for it. Then she plays the class a video of more archival footage of sit-ins, the Birmingham protests, Dr. King, John F. Kennedy, and of course, Bull Connor.
This footage isn’t bad. It is fulfilling its function: To educate kids about the civil rights movement… iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiif a bit dumbed down by Miles’ and Randy’s narration of events. “And that’s when the whooole country realized the laws were wrong and had to change.”
Maria and Kyle notice Miles and Randy are physically in the archival footage on the video, and Miles and Randy deny it. Kyle even gives them an out by exclaiming in disbelief, “Miles, you’ve got a clone!”
This does beg the question. Is this an alternate dimension where everyone is a cartoon and Miles and Randy traveled to a live-action dimension? If so, how the hell are some parts of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s animated and other parts grainy black-and-white footage? Is this like Cool World where toons can become live-action and live-action people can become toons?
Maria’s not buying Kyle’s and Randy’s question-dodging, saying, “I’m the one that skipped two grades. How did they know all that stuff?” Okay, Princess Bookworm, how did you skip two grades?
Maria asks Kyle if he wants to help her investigate what Kyle and Randy are up to. “You kidding? Like I need an excuse to pound on those old chumps. Let’s do it!” is Kyle’s response. Well, congratulations, Maria. You are now officially an accomplice in bullying.
Miles and Randy are skateboarding back to the museum when the school bus almost runs them over- oh, for God’s sake! How has this guy not lost his fucking license by now? Hell, how is he not in prison by now?!
Miles and Randy make it back to the museum and Mrs. Peck lets them in, but warns them about messing with the timeline. Soooo, we’re going with the Grandfather Paradox theory of time travel, huh? Maria and Kyle attempt to break into the museum around the back, with Maria doing absolutely nothing to stop Kyle from breaking in while also bemoaning how she’ll never be accepted into Yale with a criminal record.
Mrs. Peck finds them and simply lets them in the museum, telling them to remind Kyle and Miles to wind the watch in Dr. King’s bedroom.
Okay, this lady is up to something. It’s one thing to let kids take a closer look at a cordoned-off room in a museum, it’s another thing to send them back in time, it’s another thing to continue letting them do so with the knowledge that they can affect the timeline, and now she has gone completely bonkers letting two kids trying to break into her museum… into the fucking museum. To go time-traveling!
After Maria winds up the watch, she, Miles, Kyle, and Randy all get sucked back to the March on Washington in 1963, where Miles and Kyle get into a fight until it’s broken up by Dr. King, now voiced by his real-life son Dexter Scott King. And holy shit, does he sound a lot like his dad. We get a mix of archival footage and animated scenery of King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech- er, at least, the last couple paragraphs that make white people feel good. Shit, there’s even a montage of diverse groups of children reflected in the pool that I’m sure would make a lovely addition to a college brochure.
Kyle and Randy meet their teacher Mrs. Clark when she was younger, and apparently a hippie who’s changed her name to Sunshine. So, she’s the one who broke Bill Withers’ heart. Goddamn hippies. When the kids and Mrs. Clark talk about how awesome Dr. King is, Randy says, “Yeah. He’s really doing a lot for black people.” Mrs. Clark adds, “He’s much deeper than that!”
Bitch, don’t you fucking dare!
She basically #AllLivesMatter’d Martin Luther King. Oh, boy…
I need to break this down point by point.
- Martin Luther King was a BLACK activist.
- He was a black, black, blackity-black activist. Don’t pussyfoot around it.
- The man himself acknowledged the boundless optimism of his I Have a Dream speech was naïve, a little superficial, and unrealistic in an interview with NBC in 1967.
- Even with its astounding optimism toward the end, the I Have a Dream speech still made it quite clear whose fucking rights and equality Dr. King was fighting for: Black people’s. He uses the words “Negro” 16 times in that speech. “America has given the Negro people a bad check”; “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality”; “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one”; “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
- This whitewashing of Dr. King’s legacy to turn him from a radical black activist the FBI considered the most dangerous man in America into some colorblind hippie frolicking through a field while holding hands with all races of people while singing “Kumbaya” is dangerous. It makes his legacy much easier to hijack by people who couldn’t give less of a shit about black people’s civil rights or humanity.
There’s nothing wrong with equality for all. But, and I need to say this loudly for the people in the back…
… INEQUALITY DOES NOT AFFECT EVERYONE THE SAME WAY.
Going back to the “separate but equal” doctrine, one could make the argument white people were just as oppressed as black people by Jim Crow. After all, there were Whites Only fountains and Coloreds Only fountains, right?
Those signs weren’t intended to keep white and black people in line. They were intended to make white people feel good and keep black people in line. When your schools are separate and the white one has the better books, when your fountains are separate and the white ones have better plumbing, when your swimming pools are separate but there are far more white ones available, that’s not inequality that goes in both directions. This system of racial supremacy even applied to poor white people:
“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 25th, 1965
So, yes, Mrs. Clark is a bitch.
The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging there is one. When during a struggle for black people’s equality, you can’t bring yourself to call it that, there’s a problem. For whitewashing the struggle for black people’s equality and removing “black people” from their own fucking struggle, she’s a bitch.
Anyway, Miles buys Kyle a shirt and Kyle warms up to him. They travel back to the present in Dr. King’s bedroom, admiring what a great man he was when they suddenly see pictures of his funeral and newspaper obituaries revealing he was murdered in 1968.
Okay. Even if by the grace of some astoundingly sheltered childhoods these four middle school kids didn’t know Dr. King was assassinated, how the hell did they miss all those dead giveaways right outside his fucking bedroom??
Miles resolves that they have to go back in time to save Dr. King, so Maria winds the watch back to King’s childhood. They reveal the secret that they’re time-travelers from the future and offer to take Martin to the present. Martin accepts and when they arrive back in the present, it’s not the same present. You can tell immediately this is a bad timeline.
Kyle’s back to being a bully and Randy is now his best friend, and a racist. The school bus driver is now a racist. The fountains are segregated. The schools are segregated. Mrs. Clark is no longer a woke teacher (as if she was before). Maria can’t speak English and is scrubbing school floors- wait, this alternate timeline has nullified child labor laws, too? The Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School is now the Robert E. Lee Middle School.
Miles returns home to find his house dilapidated, his room bare and without computers or anything in it except a solitary Negro Baseball League poster and a desk. To his horror, he finds his mother now works as a maid.
This alternate timeline does raise a question, though. Is Martin Luther King really that responsible for all that’s changed over the last 50 years? To the point where if he suddenly vanished in the 1940s, the civil rights movement would never have happened? Like, without Martin, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Diane Nash, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Thurgood Marshall, etc. wouldn’t have carried on the fight for civil rights? I really hate those time-travel stories that suggest if Hitler had been assassinated, the Holocaust would’ve been prevented. Never mind that there were other anti-Semites in the Nazi Party aside from him. And would Hitler’s assassination have stopped the 1929 stock market crash? Or the rise of other fascists like Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco? That same logic should apply the other way around to great men like Dr. King. I suppose what I’m asking is this:
Can massive social changes really be attributed to one man?
Miles and Martin spend the night at Miles’ house and then return to Martin’s house, trying to figure out what went wrong with the timeline when – I shit you not – they look up into the sky and see Martin Luther King, Sr., still with James Earl Jones’ voice, in the clouds giving advice from beyond the grave.
So, Martin’s father reminds him he has a destiny and he resolves to go back and fix the timeline. He heads back inside the house before Miles can warn him he’s going to be murdered. We watch the destroyed house magically reassemble as Martin walks in and Miles runs after him in tears. Then we see a brief shot of Martin standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
The screen cuts to black as a gunshot rings out.
We see more archival footage of Martin’s funeral and of thousands of people mourning for him. It’s a genuinely affecting scene that I imagine would really resonate with kids. Meanwhile, the present returns to normal, all Miles’ friends are back to normal, and Mrs. Peck helps Miles process his grief over Martin’s death by telling him Martin will always be with him so long as he follows the man’s ideals. I’ll give the film credit. This is emotionally resonant material.
Aaaaaand in the next scene, Miles gets an A grade from Mrs. Clark and he and his friends resolve to honor Martin’s legacy by picking up some litter in an alley and painting a mural on a wall while we get more smiling montages of diversity.
Yeah. There are a lot of problems with this special.
It’s interesting how it took a full 46 years after Dr. King’s death for a theatrically released feature film to be made about him. So, for the longest time, direct-to-video and television specials like this were all adults and children had for dramatic treatments of the man’s life. This film suffers because while we’re being taught about Dr. King, it refuses to let its audience know him.
I can’t recommend the film on the animation quality, but it’s fine, as far as cheaply made educational specials go. If you’re looking for Warner Bros.- or Disney-quality animation here, you won’t find it. That essentially leaves the story. On paper, the plot isn’t bad. But its execution is all over the place, ranging from going places I’m astonished a children’s special would go to also pulling back into some really sappy territory. The constant montages of smiling, diverse groups of people, the vague “we are all equal” philosophies spoken with high idealism but low substance, the reminders that race relations are so much better, etc. In some places, the film is outright lying to kids. It’s a confusing mess that doesn’t really cover anything we didn’t learn in basic elementary schoolbooks.
Then again, it’s a children’s special. I get it. King not getting along with John F. Kennedy, the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation illegally wiretapping, spying on, sabotaging, and blackmailing Dr. King, King’s extramarital affairs, the various failures of the civil rights movement as well as its successes, the fact that we’re still fighting over many of the same issues to this day, etc. Those are all complicated subjects for adults to tackle, let alone kids. There’s this common presumption kids can’t handle complex topics.
I disagree with that.
Kids can handle complicated ideas, so long as the person explaining knows how to word them. My Friend, Martin isn’t a terrible film. It does its job… adequately. It gives the bare minimum. But now that there are more complicated children’s shows out there as well as more complicated depictions of Dr. King himself, like the man said, never be satisfied with the bare minimum.
RATING: It’s free at the library – 1 out of 5.
Coming up on January 23rd, 2017:
The Wild West Samurai has changed to reviewing films every Monday, rather than every Thursday! Starting with the crime/coming-of-age drama Better Luck Tomorrow.