Jeffrey Wright is MLK in ‘Boycott’ on Max

Jeffrey Wright stars as Rev. Martin Luther King in Boycott (2001), a powerful made for cable historical drama about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first volley in the modern civil rights struggle.

Wright plays King as a modest young minister literally thrust into the leadership of what was expected to be a short protest after the NAACP and civil rights leaders turn the stand that Rosa Parks (Iris Little Thomas) took against an unjust law into a city-wide bus boycott in 1955. Then it takes on a life of its own through the resolve and strength of the black citizens of Montgomery.

Wright is rousing on the pulpit, capturing King’s charisma and fiery oratory skills. But if King centers the film and the struggle, he draws his resolve from the thousands of heroes who hold the boycott fast, the strength of the people “doing the walking,” and the network of ministers, activists, and political leaders who overcome dissension and differences. That’s the strength of this astounding film portrait.



Director Clark Johnson fills the film with so much experience, as if always trying to bring a legendary event down to Earth. It grounds the history with an event by event look at the real life politics swirling around the boycott (in both the black community and, via the news, the white community) and the challenges to the boycott through the systematic harassment, bombings and burnings, and mass indictments against the leaders of the boycott, which results in the film’s most powerful display of solidarity. The drama is punctuated with flashes of interviews, mock newsreel footage cut in with the real thing, and fake home movies of the Kings at home, all to remind us that these are not saints but ordinary human beings.

As rousing as King’s speeches are, the film isn’t about words but action: the courage and commitment of ordinary people moved to extraordinary action and resolve in the face of intimidation, harassment, and violence. That portrait of everyday heroes changing the course of history remains the film’s most rousing message.

Terrence Howard costars as Rev. Abernathy, Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, and CCH Pounder, Reg E. Cathey, and Whitman Mayo costar. Based on the book “Daybreak of Freedom” by Stewart Burns.

It won a Peabody Award and an Image Award from the NAACP.

Rated PG.

Also on DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Boycott [DVD]

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The DVD features commentary by director Clark Johnson, a documentary featurette, historical background information, and weblinks to the National Civil Rights Museum, Rosa Parks Library and Museum, Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. and others.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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