Film critic, filmmaker, and radio host Mike Sargent interviews award-winning writer Trey Ellis on his life-changing experiences of making the Martin Luther King HBO documentary, King in the Wilderness.
Trey Ellis is an American Book Award-winning novelist, Peabody-winning and Emmy-nominated screenwriter, playwright and Associate Professor of Screenwriting in the Graduate School of Film at Columbia University. His works have been screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His first play, Fly, was commissioned and performed at The Lincoln Center Institute, continues to play around the country, including the historic Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., the Pasadena Playhouse and the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.
Mr. Ellis’ first novel, Platitudes, was published in the United States and in France, followed by his second novel, Home Repairs. Platitudes and Home Repairs were both favorably reviewed by The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Washington Post Book World, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, among others. The film rights to Home Repairs were acquired by Denzel Washington, and Mr. Ellis wrote the screenplay for Sony Pictures.
One of Mr. Ellis’ first screenplays, The Inkwell, was sold to Touchstone Pictures and produced. He was nominated for an Emmy for writing the HBO film, The Tuskegee Airmen, starring Lawrence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The film went on to win a Peabody and several NAACP Image Awards. His screenplay for the Showtime film Good Fences, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover and was produced by Spike Lee, was shortlisted by PEN Center West for Best Teleplay of the year. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Mr. Ellis is both an alumnus of the Sundance Institute and a Sundance International mentor. He continues to teach screenwriting around the world and has taught or lectured at NYU, Yale, Harvard and the University of New Mexico. He has written screenplays for Paramount, Sony and Touchstone Pictures among others, and developed television programs for USA Networks.
Ellis was the subject of a half-hour PBS documentary and has been profiled twice in The Los Angeles Times and in People. He was also featured in the book, Why We Write: Personal Statements and Photographic Portraits of 25 Top Screenwriters.
I had the opportunity to speak with Trey about the powerful new documentary King In The Wilderness which focuses on the last three years of Martin Luther King’s life, which first aired on April 2, 2018 on HBO. Directed by Peter Kunhardt and executive produced by Ellis along with Peter Kunhardt, Taylor Branch and Jacqueline Glover.
King in the Wilderness reveals a conflicted leader who, after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, faced an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum; the Black Power movement saw his nonviolence as weakness, and President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his anti–Vietnam War speeches as irresponsible. King’s fervent belief in peaceful protest became a testing point for a nation on the brink of chaos.
Interview edited for content and clarity.
Mike Sargent: As a writer and a storyteller, when did you first know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Trey Ellis: I always wanted to. I knew from a very young age, I didn’t want to have a boss, so I just knew that I wanted to write, tell stories. Also, when I was a kid, I remember in the fourth or fifth grade, I had this image of a novelist living on a boat in Nantucket typing on a manual typewriter, beautiful wife with a bikini who would bring him a martini. I didn’t know what a martini was, but I just thought that’s what a writer did, and that sounded like a good way to live.
Mike Sargent: I hear you. In your estimation, what makes a good story and a story worth telling?
Trey Ellis: That’s a tough question. A story worth telling is one that feels new even if it’s not new. You gotta remember, there are a lot of stories out there, and what is the urgency to tell this particular story? I think it’s not going to come out of plot; it’s going to come out of heart and character. The world keeps changing, so as it keeps spinning, there are new stories. Stories have new meaning and new resonance. A good story is when the story is urgent now because, and ideally, the urgency of that now, drives you to a deep place that makes it perennial, and makes it something that’ll last for years.
I knew, myself, that there was a radical King that is not talked about in the last three years of his life. And, all of us came to the same conclusion, that that is the story we had to talk about. We had to recover King the man from King the myth.
Mike Sargent: Wow, that’s a great answer, and almost a perfect lead-in to the documentary. But, I do have a third question. In your estimation, since story and storytelling, whether they’re true stories or fables, have been part of every culture since the dawn of time, what do you think the purpose of story is for human beings? Why do we need stories?
Trey Ellis: I’m a Zen Buddhist, and I think the world sort of has no meaning, fundamentally. It’s illusory. I think we tell ourselves stories about life to imagine meaning in a chaotic world. So, it helps to understand things. When I think about a show like Will and Grace, they talk about how it really had a palpable effect in letting mainstream America understand gays and lesbians in a way they hadn’t before. Storytelling goes into peoples’ houses, it goes into their cars if they’re on their radio, and it gets them with their guard down. It changes them.
Mike Sargent: Wow, well, I think Roseanne is about to do that right now. But in terms of this new HBO documentary, King in the Wilderness, there have been so many documentaries about Dr. King, and so much written about him, more than any other black historical figure, people probably feel they know him best. What was it that made you want to get involved with this project?
Trey Ellis: Peter Kunhardt (the Director) called me and asked if I’d like to help out and interview people like John Lewis, Jessie Jackson, Bernard Lafayette, Xernona Clayton. To me, it was like, how could I not? The chance to talk to these people face-to-face as a storyteller, and as a fan, was irresistible, so that was terrific. But then, secondly, when he said we would be working with Taylor Branch, such a hero of mine in all his hard work back into the Civil Rights movement.
When the three of us got together, we quickly decided, with Chris Chuang, the writer of the documentary, that we had to tell a new story. Talking about what makes a good story, what is the urgency of telling this story beyond the news peg of the 50th anniversary of his assassination? What to tell now? I was lucky enough to have studied under professor Clay Carson at Stanford, and he is actually the curator of the King Papers. I knew, myself, that there was a radical King that is not talked about in the last three years of his life. All of us came to the same conclusion, that that is the story we had to talk about. We had to recover King the man from King the myth.
Mike Sargent: What really stood out the most to me is what it took to be this icon, where he was at the time. Can you talk a little bit about that and how, maybe, that influenced your questions? Or, did one interview start to inform you to the next?
Trey Ellis: I was trying to say, “forget that he was an icon,” as much as possible, and try to go back and ask his friends to really start from the beginning, and really peel away all these layers, talking about King the man, and show the difference, show the man behind the mask. We interviewed all those different people, without having preconceptions about what their answers would be like. Once we got all their answers, Maya Mumma and Steven Golliday, these brilliant editors, stitched together this portrait of him, along with that amazing archival footage that was found by this incredible team. The interviews told us the story we had to tell, as opposed to asking people to tell us things we wanted to tell.
Mike Sargent: In terms of shaping this, how did those interviews start telling you how you wanted to shape it? Whether you wanted it to be completely chronological, or whether you wanted to have a fractured narrative. It moved and had momentum. Was that just natural from what you learned?
Trey Ellis: It was a call and response between the editors, Peter Kunhardt, Christ Chuang, the writer, myself, and Taylor. What’s the truth? There’s a basic chronology. We knew a wraparound using the funeral as the lead up to Memphis was a, sort of, frame. And then, we knew we had Chicago, we had the anti-war movement, and the Poor People’s Campaign, as these big sign posts. That gave us the freedom to talk about unknown things. Harry Belafonte talks about MLK’s love life. This white woman, which I didn’t know about, was his first real love. Then enters daddy King who says, “No, you cannot. I groomed you to be this great leader, and the world isn’t ready for you to have a white wife, or lover. So it’s not possible.” And then we discuss Coretta King. We have the basic structure, and we had this overall theme of King humanizing King, that we always kind of circle back to his face, really. His smiles, and of those really heartbreaking close-ups of him at his saddest.
Mike Sargent: One of the things that struck me was, and you just touched upon it, was the relationship he had with his father, and how, in some ways, he had to either live up to, or be in the shadow of, or just be the son to the father. Was this something you knew? Was this something that surprised you? And can you speak to the importance of that and showing that in the film?
Trey Ellis: Yeah, it’s riveting. When Taylor Branch interviewed Harry Belafonte, Belafonte said, “When you meet daddy King, you knew who had the power.” He says in his great Belafonte voice.
Mike Sargent: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.
Just thinking about the ups and downs of a career, and how, if you’re really committed to your work, you gotta just keep doing the work. That’s been really inspiring to me. He kept doing that work when he was a media darling, and then when he was a pariah. He just kept his head down and kept doing the work.
Trey Ellis: There was this great picture that the archivist, Jill Cowan, found. This amazing shot of big daddy King, and his little MLK Jr. behind him. You just go, “Oh, my god.” There’s also a wonderful Merv Griffin interview, where he [daddy King] talks, while King is there, relaxed on the couch, and he says, “He’s the pastor, I’m the co-pastor.” He makes no doubt about who is the boss in the family. “You’re still my little son.” Without giving too much away from the film, the way that daddy King reacts to the funeral… I think that footage has never before been seen… is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the film.
Mike Sargent: Absolutely. One of the things a documentary like this does is give context. You talked before about how an old story can be told again and have relevance, and this, in some ways, this is something that happened long ago. How important is history to give context to understanding either the person or the people?
Trey Ellis: I read a lot about history. I like it, not as a history lesson, but how it bumps up against the present day. So, when I was writing about the Tuskegee Airmen, as a film, I was talking about heroism today. We had those heroes then, but what is black heroism look like today? Doing this film, as we’re starting it in the Trump era, understanding that, when King’s talking about a guaranteed universal income, he’s talking about when whites talk about welfare as a black issue, but when the government gives subsidies to whites to build highways and housing developments in the suburbs, it’s called “subsidies” for them and “welfare” for us. He was radical in everything he’s saying. If you didn’t know it was King, you could be listening to Morning Joe. You could be listening to CNN today.
Mike Sargent: Absolutely. What were the biggest takeaways, or maybe revelations for you from working on this? It was definitely a revelation to me, knowing that he had, early on, fallen in love with a white woman. What were some of the things that really surprised you in making this documentary?
Trey Ellis: The extent of his depression near the end, really struck me. That everyone saw that in him, that he was really down, despite all of these accolades. They loved him so much, and they really, I think, still to this day, feel regret, that they weren’t able to support him enough and lift his spirits enough. They had their own agendas. They were all young and, sort of, fighting for his approval, and fighting for where they thought the movement could go, and they weren’t as supportive of him as they, perhaps, could’ve been. The other side of that is, I was really surprised by how irreverent he was; how funny he was. Xernona Clayton tells us she said to King, “After you solve all this racism and poverty stuff, you could go on the road and be a comedian.” There are some amazing scenes where Andy Young and Clarence Jones are talking about how wicked his sense of humor was.
Mike Sargent: Yes, that struck me as well. In your career, you’ve done everything. You’ve done plays, essays, films, and now documentaries. I’m curious. I tend to believe that as you define your art, your art defines you. What did you learn about yourself in the process of working on this project?
Trey Ellis: That’s a great question. I have a 16-year-old son, and I think about how much I want him to be better than me, and do more than me. I think about that with daddy King and MLK, where daddy King was leery of his son. He’s much more conservative than his son, but also proud of his son. That sort of father-son dynamic, really made me think about my own. It also made me think about how MLK had these amazing successes at 25, with the bus boycott, 26. And then, by the time he gets to 36, to 39, he feels like his dream, as he says in our documentary, has become a nightmare. Just thinking about the ups and downs of a career, and how, if you’re really committed to your work, you gotta just keep doing the work. That’s been really inspiring to me. He kept doing that work when he was a media darling, and then when he was a pariah. He just kept his head down and kept doing the work. That’s been a real inspiration for me.
Mike Sargent: I definitely found it inspiring. What do you hope for audiences to come away with after seeing this documentary? Especially, hopefully, young audiences. People who, maybe, only know him as just that icon of who he is. There’s a holiday, and you know about the speeches, but you don’t really know the man, or even the context of the time in which he was living.
Trey Ellis: That part is the history lesson part. I’m worried about today, but I’m inspired by the women’s march, the high school march against gun violence. What I want people to get from our film is that King was not perfect, and he wasn’t a billionaire, and the media wasn’t his friend, but he still kept doing the work, so we have no excuse, ourselves, for not putting one foot ahead of the other, and working for justice. Before, if we thought he was perfect, we can sit and wait for someone like him to come back. We can wait to clone him and say, “Okay, now just lead us and you’ll solve all our problems.” Diane Nash says very clearly in our film, “You can’t wait for anybody, and he didn’t wait for anybody, and we can’t wait for anybody.”
Mike Sargent: I concur completely. One of the great opportunities, and I can relate to this as both a filmmaker and a journalist, is what you said, the opportunity to sit down with these people that you have so much respect for, that you know about, and actually sit and have a conversation with them. For you, what were some of the greatest things about getting to talk to some of these luminaries?
Trey Ellis: To sit with them for so long. Just to sit with them. I’m so privileged. The way we work, you’ll see in the documentary, that they’re looking right into the camera. During filming, they’re really looking right into my eyes, but we use a device that allows every single person that sees this film to see what I saw, looking right into their eyes. That was really life-changing. And then, meeting these people. I met Diane Nash, she’s really a super woman. I’d known that, before going to Fisk University, she had been at Howard University for a year around the same time as my parents, and I just kind of casually mentioned my mom, and she said, “I knew Pam Ellis.” And I almost lost it. She passed away when I was 16. And she told me these amazing stories about my mom and my dad, and my uncles, who were all her classmates at Howard before she transferred. Now, she’s my pen pal. It’s been incredible.
King was not perfect, and he wasn’t a billionaire, and the media wasn’t his friend, but he still kept doing the work, so we have no excuse, ourselves, for not putting one foot ahead of the other, and working for justice.
Mike Sargent: Well, I have to say, I really, really, really enjoyed this documentary. What’s next? What’s on the horizon?
Trey Ellis: A couple things. I’m doing another, I’ve got the documentary bug, I’m co-directing with the writer of King in the Wilderness, Chris Chuang, a new documentary about injustice in America and racial violence. Again, an HBO feature doc, for next year. I’ve got some other fiction projects in and around the Civil Rights movement. But my passion project for a long time has been this feature that I’ve written about Amos and Andy. The true story of Amos and Andy, the TV show from the 50s. The true story is stranger than fiction, and the issues of representation, they talk about that, are exactly the same things that people talk about with the “Oscars are so white.” Everything we’re talking about today, they were talking about then.
Mike Sargent: Yes, I’ve read quite a bit about both of them. How they had to play characters that were originally played as caricatures by white actors on radio.
Trey Ellis: Absolutely, it’s just a crazy story.
Mike Sargent: Mind blowing. Well, I look forward to seeing that, and I hope I get to talk to you again, and again, really enjoyed your time. Thanks, man.
Trey Ellis: Oh, it’s a big pleasure, thank you.