[Jonathan from Cinema Styles] 45 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It was delivered as the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Five years later King would be assassinated just one day after delivering his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1969 Haskell Wexler, the noted cinematographer, directed the film Medium Cool. It takes place in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and is justifiably famous for combining real footage with the actors in the film to such an extent that the line is blurred between what is real and what is not. Not by the usual methods of interlacing documentary footage into a fiction film. No. In Medium Cool Wexler and his crew were in Chicago in 1968 and filmed their actors amidst riots and clashes with police. Since the fiction footage and the real footage were both shot by Wexler, the blend is seamless and makes for an extraordinary historical record.
Late in the movie John Cassellis (a television cameraman played by Robert Forster) is watching a news documentary on Martin Luther King with Eileen (Verna Bloom). As they watch King's "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech Wexler closes his camera in on Eileen, a school teacher transplanted from West Virginia to Chicago, and observes the effects on both characters.
We watch Eileen who is emotionally connected to what she is seeing until we hear John who sees only media technique. His words, listening to this heart wrenching speech by King? "Jesus, I love to shoot film." Eileen's visual response is bewilderment. As he goes on about tv, asking rhetorical questions about where it gets its power, Eileen says, "I don't know what to think. Seems like no man's life's worth anything anymore."
Watching Medium Cool today is like exploring a time capsule of Chicago, 1968. As we watch the chaos and witness the despair of many characters we remember that despite all of it, it is the hope of the sixties, the hope of men like King that lives on today. Movies like Medium Cool remind us of the chaos, but King's "I Have a Dream" and "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speeches remind us of the courage, and the principles, of this great man during that turbulent period in American history.