SBIFF ’09: Civil Rights Short Stirs Excitement
Academy Award-Nominated Documentary The Witness Premieres
Last Monday, The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film, now nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Short Subject Documentary, centers around the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the eyes of the only firsthand witness, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles.
“I’ve wanted to tell this story for most of my adult life,” says executive producer Margaret Hyde. The movie centers around Reverend Kyles as the storyteller and on his continuing commitment to civil rights. Having known Kyles for many years, Hyde has seen the story of the assassination told to 26 Nobel laureates on separate occasions. Prominent figures such as Bill Clinton, Oprah, Bono, Al Gore, and Magic Johnson have listened to Kyles relate the final moments of one of the most celebrated men in American history. And Hyde remembers when Nelson Mandela, while hearing Hyde’s account, was moved to tears.
“It’s a story,” says Hyde, “that is relevant now more than ever, given our historic new presidency.” Another motivator in preserving Kyles’s account was for the benefit of a generation who has grown up seeing King as an icon, a symbol rather than a man. The Witness lets contemporaries and friends of King humanize his story for those who were not there to see it.
Hyde hopes the film will connect past history with current society. Kyles emphasizes one question throughout the film, hoping a new generation will ask itself what it will accomplish by the age of 39. Kyles hopes to remind the uninspired that the civil rights movement began because, in Hyde’s words, “It’s what needed to be done.” The fight to improve society is far from over, according to Reverend Kyles, and we must still ask ourselves: “How can I be a part of the dream?”
The film was released in time for the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was the goal the filmmakers had set for themselves early on. “This film should go on beyond the Academy Awards,” said Hyde of the weight of Kyles’s words. “This film should live on in people’s hearts and in schools for years to come.”
Every penny the film makes is being given to the National Civil Rights Museum.