Bringing King to China is a whole lot of things balled into one big one that leaves the viewer with a serious case of brain itch. At the surface, it’s a touchingly personal documentary by Santa Barbara resident and war correspondent Kevin McKiernan about his daughter Caitrin’s successful quest to stage a play about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life in the National Theater of China, the equivalent, we are told, of China’s Broadway. But really, the film is as much about Caitrin and Kevin, an enviably close daughter and father team that over the years have enjoyed a striking bond in their passion for politics.
In the 1980s, the two McKiernans could be seen covering protests at Ronald Reagan’s Refugio ranch, and in the film, we are shown snippets of a young Caitrin — cute and ridiculously poised as a nine-year old — interviewing former President Jimmy Carter and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. But there was more to the McKiernans’ involvement than merely covering a story.
As a filmmaker and journalist, Kevin has sought to bear moral witness — without being preachy — to the exertion of imperial muscle by the United States, whether in central America or the Middle East. In his work, dead bodies have a tendency to pile up and the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy is never far from view. That’s all there in Bringing King to China, but mostly it’s the story told by a loving, if at times overbearing, father of his daughter’s effort to find a new path and her own voice.
Early in the film, Caitrin — now a law student at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall — tells her cameraman father that his generation’s peace marches and street rallies failed to stop the invasion of Iraq. New approaches are needed. “You,” she says reproachfully, “you’re living in the 60s.” Instead of journalism with all its pretense of distance and dispassion, Caitrin opts for the theater to speak her truths. As a high school student she was fortunate enough to study abroad in China. As a Fulbright scholar, she would go back again. And she wants to let the Chinese — and the world — know not all Americans are war mongers. Her problem, she explains at one point, is that her generation has no heroes. So she is forced to borrow one from her father’s: Martin Luther King Jr. She will tell King’s story — not just his “I Have a Dream” speech, but his opposition to the war in Vietnam and support for striking garbage workers — to the Chinese.
Somehow, Caitrin got Stanford University — where she studied — to back the play financially. But to put it on, she has to navigate and negotiate an understanding with the Chinese authorities and artists, whose notions of Martin Luther King Jr. are often at odds with her own. Where Kevin has sought to expose the impacts of American militarism on the countries we’ve attacked over the past 20 years, Caitrin finds herself forced to dance with America’s rival as a dominant global power. The music is very different. Earlier in the movie, Caitrin laments the sanitized version of King that’s celebrated in the United States at his birthday every January. But later in the film, she discovers that the Chinese have their own agenda when it comes to interpreting the legacy of a slain civil rights leader and the meaning of his struggle. And what the Chinese think is not only at odds with Caitrin, but sometimes with the known facts.
Much of the film dwells on the push-and-pull between Caitrin and the insistent Chinese producers collaborating with her on the play who suggest King may have been killed by rivals within the Civil Rights movement, like black nationalist Stokely Carmichael who repudiated King’s credo of non-violent resistance. Even in the wildest conspiracy circles, that theory has never been propounded. But the Chinese theater professionals with whom Caitrin worked were more interested in a dramatic story than in the historical record. Much to Caitrin’s frustration, she can’t really get the Chinese actors with whom she works to feel King the way she does. She goes so far to bring them to the United States for a tour of Memphis, where he was shot, and Birmingham, where he marched. While the actors appreciated the historical time travel Caitrin arranged for them, it’s also clear they had a much better time hitting the night clubs and shopping malls.
Throughout the film, Caitrin acknowledges the totalitarian nature of Chinese society and wonders how that fact effected how King’s work was perceived there. She makes plain her skepticism with the party line that there is no racism in China, where all 54 ethnic groups get along in peace and harmony. She takes exception to certain Chinese officials who seek to equate King with former Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung, with whom he shared the world stage for a time. When King was killed, she reminded one Mao apologist, Mao stated King’s assassination proved non-violence did not work. When she pressed further, pointing out that Mao believed in violence, the same functionary trotted rebutted her with an obscure proverb to the effect that rabbits don’t attack unless provoked.
The interactions between Caitrin and her father suggests a more personal motivation to her insistence on non-violence. While growing up, it was cool, she said, to have a father who was a war correspondent. It gave her cache. But it was also really scary. Sometimes she didn’t know if Kevin was dead or alive. And when he came back from the front, she said he wasn’t always the same person he was before. All the death and fear had taken a toll on him. “You weren’t you anymore,” she said. And even when he was, he was still a reporter, which creates distance of its own. “Dad, please don’t do that now,” she objects at one point, as Kevin points the camera at her. “Can you talk to me as a human being?” Sometimes for professional reporters, that’s asking a lot.
There are many stories being told in this film, and it’s not always clear which one is which. But that’s often the way it is with fathers and daughters.
The world premiere of Kevin McKiernan’s Bringing King to China is on Sunday, January 30, 7:45 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre. It screens again on Wednesday, February 2, 4 p.m., and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. See the film’s website here.