ALEXANDER BISLEY talks to Noland Walker about promise, monuments versus movements, honouring Jonestown’s ghosts and what Martin Luther King means today. Illustration by LYNDON BARROIS.

“AND DON’T LET anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘you are too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.’” Martin Luther King’s exceptionally eloquent speeches in Citizen King stir audiences. King’s messages remain uncannily topical, pointed and essential. The documentary commemorates what King’s message really was and what it means today, co-director-writer-producer Noland Walker tells me.

Archival footage of King rallying against the Vietnam War is potent. King faced unprecedented opposition (even from former allies) for opposing it. “Others can do what they want to do, that’s their business. If other civil rights leaders for various reasons refuse or can’t take a stand or have to go along with the administration, that’s their business. But I must say tonight that I know that justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... I want to make it clear I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy and with all of my actions to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.”

King, unlike all the contemporary false prophets, was a preacher who gave the Church a good name. Like Nelson Mandela, King’s moral authority gave his outrage force. “The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam. Making the poor white and Negro bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home.”

“It’s exactly what’s happening now, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Walker, composed and confident, tells me. “The elements that were in place then, are still in place now, just different.” Walker, a charismatic black American, is passionate and knowledgeable about King and his ideas; talking to me with an eloquence that befits his subject.

After advocating a moderate viewpoint for much of his life, King became quite radicalised during his final years, as the film charts. Martin Luther King Day, America’s only federal national holiday for a non-Presidential person, was established in 1986. Ironically, a lot of people now say King’s a good guy while disingenuously ignoring his messages. “Martin Luther King – who he was and what he stood for begins to fade away. He’s this smoothed over, modelled hero.” Walker recites a poem referred to several times in the film. “Now that he is safely dead let us praise him, for dead men make such convenient heroes, they can not rise up to challenge the images we fashion for them. Besides, it’s easier to build a Monument than it is a Movement.”

Walker wants to reclaim the holiday. “People forget that he was actually very controversial and unpopular at the time of his death. And the ideas and reasons why were important to get on film, and to get a record from the people who participated at the time, many of whom are still alive today.”

In a time where the Bush administration clings to power by fear and control, King’s message to not be afraid – itself a riff on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – is most important. Some of the most poignant scenes in the film show black Americans recounting how, as young teenagers, King helped them to stop being scared. “He took all of the fear out, even though he was talking about doing serious things here in the city of Birmingham. He took all of the fear out of you,” Geneva Jones, aged 19 in 1963, says.

With such a rich subject, omissions had to be made. The project was mooted as four hours long, but for various reasons was cut down to two, focussing on King’s last (and most famous) five years, 1963-68.

Some of the most startling footage shows the elements of outrageous racism then in America. Jack Greenberg, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defence Fund, explains: “The people in the rest of the country with the vivid pictures of fire hoses and police dogs attacking children and black citizens were, in a very dramatic way, exposed to just exactly what racism meant and how fiercely the South was defending it.” Clarence Jones continues, “Martin King was convinced the people of Birmingham would not tolerate police – acting in their name – slamming little girls up against the wall with fire hoses. And having dogs attack kids. They grew up in segregation, and they may not have agreed with him, but there’s a limit. Enough, that’s too much.” Things have improved; but too many Rodney King acquittals hardly inspire. Not to mention Hurricane Katrina.

Walker rightly point outs that New Zealand has its own problems with racism; he cites the Brashian wing of the National Party. King’s message of racial harmony and equality isn’t just for Americans.

After Citizen King, Walker co-wrote and co-produced the fascinating, terrifying Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple. “I can’t really compare Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple to Citizen King because Jonestown was the most wrenching filmmaking experience I’ve ever had. I have an aunt, uncle (recently deceased), and three cousins who were in Peoples Temple from 1971-1977. When I was a kid we drove across the country to California and attended PT services while visiting her. They defected three months before the big exodus to Guyana and so I felt a tremendous, blood responsibility to them and everybody involved – even more than usual because I was not directing the film – to get the story right and honour their humanity.”

Walker worked on the script alone for eight months; going through the extensive Peoples Temple archives in San Francisco, reading, watching newsreel footage, listening to audiotapes that People’s Temple recorded, etc. “But the most demanding part was talking with the survivors about what was, for many, the best and worst experience of their lives. Everybody lost somebody at Jonestown and it was quite an experience collecting their remarkable stories. Many of the people who lived this history still reside in California and I live on the East Coast. Because of the time difference (three hours), I often didn’t begin talking with people until around 11:00 PM my time, after my wife and son were in bed. Well, sometimes those conversations would last until one or two in the morning and I would hang up the phone to find myself the only one awake in a dark house, head filled with the names and stories of the murdered and the dead. I would get in bed next to my wife and ghosts would be everywhere (figuratively), especially if I could match a name or a story with a photograph in my mind. A little frightening at first, but a powerful experience all around. I tried to honour and convey that in every interview that I did for the film as well as in the script I wrote.”

In his last couple of years, King came to realise America’s problems went beyond racism. James Cone explains, “King begins to see that what was happening in Vietnam, was also connected with poverty and connected with racism and classism. And, that’s when he begins to think about another march. And this march is going to be a march to transform the economic situation of people in this country.” King put it in unequivocal terms, “the other thing I want you to understand is this: that it didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. But now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.”

Coretta Scott King on her husband’s legacy. “He knew that this was a sick society, totally infested with racism and violence that questioned his integrity, maligned his motives and distorted his views which would ultimately lead to his death. And he struggled with every ounce of his energy to save that society from itself.” The struggle continues.

Walker points out the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and dozens of other progressives are more than a coincidence. “It sent a clear message and knocked the wind out of people.”

Documentary is on a roll. “It’s very exciting,” this two-decade veteran of the scene enthuses, “documentaries not only are widely disseminated but the public are so interested in them.” Though he has a few reservations, Walker is a Michael Moore fan. “He’s a cretin, but he’s our cretin.” He admires Spike Lee’s work, but won’t be working for him anytime soon. “We got on like oil and water. It was terrible.” Walker’s current projects include pre-production for a dramatic, re-creation heavy documentary he’s writing-directing on the Haitian Revolution, which shoots in the Caribbean in October.

Walker likes hip-hop. He disagrees with those who say rappers Biggie and Tupac are the contemporary Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs. “They’re this generation’s Bob Dylan.” Barack Obama: “Barack Obama – very impressive indeed. He’s definitely a person of substance and grace. One of my brothers-in-law was a rival turned good friend during their Harvard Law School days. The guy is the real deal.”

Fear and control remains a big issue for Walker. “It’s true. As an American citizen it’s true.” Despite the difficulties of the black American experience, Walker believes in the promise of America, a promise black Americans have remained surprisingly loyal to. “It’s not a lie, but it’s a perpetual disappointment. But it only can be a disappointment because it’s a hope. All those levels of contradiction culminating with each other in the course of daily life.” He’s too modest to say it, but Walker – and his documentary – represents a realisation of the hope.

“Young people rise to the challenge... it’s new history for a lot of people.” The film has been very well received. One common verdict: “People have to know about this.” The question sceptics always argue is will political documentaries such as Citizen King change the world? Walker looks me in the eye, with Wordsworthian grace: “Art changes people; people change society.”

» Illustration by Lyndon Barrois.