By Sonja Morin, MCFL Communications Intern
Even before the screen brightens, the jazz music softly enters, quiet but bright. It rises as the screen fades to a shade of blue reminiscent of the ocean. Watercolors overlap footage of daily life - people walking, trading, exchanging stories - and images of Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A woman’s humming joins the calming jazz, floating with the melody. She sings no words in particular. The swirling imagery and music crescendo, enveloping the audience in its thoughtful embrace.
This is the way in which the 2019 documentary Humanité: The Beloved Community introduces itself to the audience. This masterful documentary, directed by Jim Hanon, unfolds as an exploration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of “the beloved community”: the idea that all people can share in brotherhood despite their diverse circumstances and backgrounds. Specifically, the documentary ponders how music ties people together, even from across the world. Kirk Whalum, a Grammy-award winning musician from Memphis, introduces the idea of the beloved community as he first experienced it growing up. His father worked in the civil rights movement of the 1960s along with Dr. King, right up to the point where the latter was assassinated mere blocks away from their home.
The telling of his story then gives way to others’ as well. Musicians from across the world explain how music has served as a unitive element. “Music… incorporates strands of man in so many different ways”, one recounted. As the stories unfold in Humanité, those strands become clear. For some, it brought musicians out of addiction, destitution, and other struggles. Others testified that music helped them find friends and make connections. Still others felt that music is a conduit of self-expression, while at the same time allowing understanding between performer and listener. The communion between people that is made manifest in music is, quite literally, often beyond words.
The direction and artful interplay of visuals with sounds blend together to immerse the audience in the intertwined stories being presented. The imagery is always tinted a cool shade of blue, much like the aforementioned opening credits. This common thread, no matter the setting, ties together the visuals in a shade that is often used to represent peace and unity. An unusual technique utilized in Humanité is the overlap of footage with still photos, often of Dr. King or Nelson Mandela. This is used at poignant points in the documentary, to demonstrate how the ideas of these deceased leaders are still living in those who seek to be the beloved community. The music swells and decreases, but is always present. Often without words, it allows an audience of diverse languages to enjoy the mood being conveyed without having to decipher lyrics. Not only are the visual and audial elements utilized in such a way that it is pleasing to the audience, but it masterfully sweeps up the audience in the embrace of the conveyed ideals of the beloved community.
The end of Humanité dwells on the lines in Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” regarding the common brotherhood of man. Whalum recounts a particular phrase in the Letter: “If not now, when?” He points out that, despite our great ability to connect with others, we have become more isolated as an international community. If we do not form that bridge to communion with others now, then when? How long will we wait before we recognize the dignity of our brothers and sisters across the world, or close to home, no matter their circumstances? This question is left lingering at the end of the documentary, but not without a realization: that community is possible, even in our stratified and disconnected world. We have the opportunity to create this communion which we, as humans, naturally desire. But it is up to us to create that union, and reach out to those around us in the here and now.