first glance, Martin Luther King and China
don’t appear to belong together in the same sentence. For
myself - as a student of Asia, civil
rights and international human rights - the combination
makes perfect sense. And
if you look more closely, it should become obvious to you
America awaits the August 28 opening of the King National Memorial
in Washington, D.C., this is a
perfect time to reflect on the leader’s accomplishments,
legacy, and commitment to justice, equality and nonviolent
social change. As we continue to run the risk of turning
the man into a two-dimensional cutout stereotype, it is
important to remember that the “dreamer” was far more -
a staunch antiwar activist who called for a radical revolution
of American values.
new documentary from award-winning journalist and filmmaker
McKiernan takes a look an effort to bring Dr. King’s
message to China. The film, Bringing
King to China, examines efforts by his daughter,
Cáitrín - who studied and taught in Beijing
under a Fulbright after attending Stanford - to introduce
a play about Dr. King to a Chinese audience. The play, called
Passages of Martin Luther King, was written by Clayborne
Carson, a leading King scholar and Cáitrín’s teacher
at Stanford. Carson based his play on King’s speeches and letters,
even love letters from King to his wife.
the beginning, the film almost begs us to ask the question:
What can a twenty-something white woman teach the Chinese
about the preeminent African-American civil rights leader?
The answer is, apparently a great deal. China,
now an emerging superpower and the world’s second largest
economy after the U.S., was already open to
Dr. King’s words. Video footage of lynchings and the police
brutality of the Jim Crow South showed China what black people were up against. And following
King’s assassination, Mao Tse Tung gave a speech in Tiananmen
Square praising the fallen leader. Some Chinese have tried
to compare the two men, however problematic, given Mao’s
support of violence, and the ruthlessness of the Cultural
the communist-turned-hyper-capitalist nation is beating
the U.S. at its own game of making
money, and may someday eclipse its trading partner and debtor.
And yet, while the official line in China
is that racism doesn’t exist there, the persecution of Muslim
Uighurs, Tibetans and other minority groups tells a different
the popularity of Darlie
or “Black Man Toothpaste,” formerly known as Darkie,
suggests a little education about black folks wouldn’t hurt.
Then there’s the issue of freedom of speech and political
repression in China.
the play, which was performed by the National Theater Company
of China, emerged unscathed from
the Chinese government’s censors. But that doesn’t mean
that the participants in the play did not self-censor, or
at least second guess themselves and question whether their
production would succeed and pass muster. The production
marked the first time that a Chinese and African-American
cast performed together in China.
A Chinese man even played the role of King. And the theater
company traveled to the U.S.
to visit the National Civil Rights
Museum in Memphis, and learn more about the man and the movement
they would so ambitiously undertake to portray.
Bringing King to China is really several stories in one. Aside from chronicling
the process of adapting Carson’s
work for a Chinese audience, the documentary is about bridging
cultures. Americans and Chinese need to talk, figure things
out and understand each other, much the way that the U.S.
and Japan began a similar dialogue
decades earlier. As the film points out, each culture has
its own interpretation of reality. For example, while Americans
might have viewed the 1989 image of a Chinese protestor
walking in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square as the ultimate form of protest, a Chinese interpretation
of that scene may have been one of government self-restraint.
The film is also about the complexity of the civil rights
movement, and the presence alongside King of important figures
such as Stokely
Carmichael, who preferred a more militant “black power”
approach as an alternative to nonviolent civil disobedience.
the documentary also tells the story of a father-daughter
relationship, as well as the horrors of war. Kevin McKiernan
was on assignment in war-torn Iraq in 2006 when Cáitrín mistakenly received news
that her father had been killed by a suicide bomber in Northern
Iraq. This happened at a time when China
began to question America’s
presence in the Arab nation. The film’s focus on Cáitrín’s
traumatic wartime experience is appropriate for a documentary
about Martin Luther King, a pacifist who spoke out against
the deadly and atrocious U.S.
war in Vietnam.
years in the making, Bringing King to China does
a laudable job of shedding a new light on the man by introducing
him to a new audience. And in the process, it reveals glimmers
of hope for the future, even as it exposes the shortcomings
and the U.S.,
and the progress that has yet to be made in both countries.
Chinese crew member in the film suggested that King is needed
back in America. I thought that was
a profound statement, perhaps the most poignant throughout
the documentary, for its truth and clarity. Without question,
King’s work is undone in the states, and for proof of that
one need only look at the protracted nature of King’s three
evils of racism, militarism and economic exploitation. This
country’s lingering wars, its coldhearted Tea Party austerity
policies, its economic inequality and entrenched corporate
power mean that the U.S. has not fully learned
the lessons left by the man we will soon memorialize on
the National Mall - with a statue designed by a Chinese
sculptor, no less. At the same time, King is needed
in China, in Palestine and Israel,
and in other places around the world.
BlackCommentator.com Executive Editor, David
A. Love, JD is a journalist and human rights advocate based
in Philadelphia, is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania
Law School. and a contributor to The Huffington
Post, the Grio, The Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service,
Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He also blogs at davidalove.com, NewsOne, Daily Kos, and Open Salon. Click here to contact Mr. Love.