By Annette Hinkle
In December of 1965, New York cinematographer George Silano was hired by producer Arnold Michaelis to travel to Atlanta, Georgia to shoot an interview.
Silano lives in North Haven these days, but in the 1960s, he was a freelancer who worked on a number of big documentaries. The subject of this particular assignment was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the one-on-one interview between he and Michaelis took place in King’s Atlanta living room over the course of a week.
Ultimately, the interview was edited down to an hour long film titled “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Personal Portrait” and in it, King, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize a year earlier, addresses questions related to the growing conflict in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and the notion of sacrificing one’s own life for a higher cause. The film also incudes a rare interview with King’s wife, Coretta, who offers her unique perspective as the Civil Right’s leader’s wife and mother of his children.
“I love this form – the sit down form, it has breathing room,” notes Silano. “I’m the only one who knew what I had, about the emotional impact and how it looked.”
“One thing I noticed about King, being in his presence and watching through the lens, his ego just disappeared,” adds Silano. “I always saw the ego present when filming important people. But no matter what question was posed, he was not alarmed, not defensive.”
“He was Mahatma Ghandi,” adds Silano, a reference to a portrait that hung on the wall behind King’s couch during the session. “He was such a unique character in that sense, and comfortable in his own skin. He had an abundance of generosity of spirit.”
Michaelis, who died in 1997, was a prolific interviewer and he delved deep with his subjects. Between 1950 and 1990, he conducted countless interviews with the most powerful and influential figures of the day —among them Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson (Michaelis also hosted a TV show from 1961 to 1963 with Stevenson who was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations).
Michaelis’ interviews were recorded on audio tape, film and, later, videotape. While many of Michaelis’ audio interviews aired on a radio show he produced in the 1960s, a vast majority of the material has never been seen publicly —including the MLK film shot by Silano.
On Monday, January 28, the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton will screen the film at 3 p.m. and Silano explains why it has been hidden for so long.
“Michaelis’ overall plan was to make ‘The Living History,’ and he spent 40 years doing interviews,” says Silano who adds that the idea was to sell the material.
But Michealis was never able to do so.
“You’re either on the inside or the outside,” explains Silano. “If you’re on the outside you try to market it. He tried to sell it to networks but they had their own public affairs department and were making their own films.”
As a result, all of Michaelis’ substantial archive, including the MLK film, ended up at the University of Georgia after his death. And that’s where it might have stayed had Silano not started poking around. Curious about the film, he tracked down Michaelis’ daughter and learned where it was.
So Silano contacted the director of the university’s archives who confirmed that, yes, Michaelis’ collection included an MLK film.
“I said, ‘I worked on it,’” recalls Silano. “She said, ‘No kidding….you’re still alive?’”
It’s a valid question. Silano, in fact, is the only member of that film crew who still is.
“So they pumped me for information,” he said. “The archives got a grant to work on the film, they want to dress it up, refine it and clean it up. They understand the importance. Obama will use two bibles at his inauguration next week – Abraham Lincoln’s personal bible and MLK’s personal bible.”
When asked what it felt like to watch King speak so intimately about what he had been through in the Civil Rights fight while prophetically alluding to what might be coming down the road just as he was beginning to speak out against the Vietnam War, Silano responds, “I felt he was in danger, but he was so calm. He had been put in jail, had rocks thrown at him, his house had been bombed. He was very aware.”
And yet, the film shows that King harbored no illusions about the fate that might eventually one day befall him (and, in fact, did).
“He really qualified it well – he didn’t want to be a martyr, but said if death comes I accept it because everyone has to take a stand,” says Silano. “It’s a great lesson for all of us. You have to reach a point where you must take a stand on a position.’”
This film also offers a unique alternate view of MLK — one in which he isn’t delivering fiery speeches from the pulpit or before millions of marchers in Washington, but in the intimate setting of his own home.
“I thought it was great we got him in his living room,” says Silano. “He felt comfortable, his son came over and sat with him for a while. It was a wonderful atmosphere for him to speak about his thoughts.”
“He was so prescient. That’s what you get with pure thoughts – timeless qualities,” adds Silano. “His purity of thought was so palpable. I’ll never forget it when I was shooting. It makes you feel calm and yes, it is possible to have pure thoughts that don’t have special interests. There was no lobbying.”
“This film was unique,” he says. “This is a coming out of a wonderful piece of material.”
“Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Personal Portrait” will be screened on Monday, January 28, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Morris Meeting Room of Rogers Memorial Library (91 Coopers Farm Road, Southampton). Reservations are advised at 283-0774 ext. 523 or www.myrml.org.