The 1999 animated film Our Friend, Martin has been used as a Civil Rights Movement teaching resource in schools across the United States. While Our Friend, Martin does an admirable job of portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s life, the film’s premise minimizes the legacy of other influential civil rights leaders, while misunderstanding Dr. King’s impact.
Our Friend, Martin depicts the time-travel journey of a Black sixth-grader named Miles Woodman, who explores five different periods of Dr. King’s life alongside his classmates. Miles experiences American segregation alongside a teenage King during the 1940s, and then witnesses several key moments: a meeting regarding the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, the Birmingham campaign in May of 1963 and the March on Washington in August of the same year. After learning of Dr. King’s death, Miles time travels once again and brings the 12-year-old Dr. King to an alternate future.
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In this future, Dr. King never led the Civil Rights Movement, which doesn’t exist in this alternate timeline. Miles’ former White friends, teacher and principal are all racists, while his school is named after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate president. His Latina friend Maria is shown as a school custodian, despite being a child. After seeing the consequences of his absence from history, Dr. King decides to head back to the past, which changes everything back to normal.
While Our Friend, Martin does a good job at exploring these events for children, it implies that Dr. King was the sole leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Although Dr. King’s peaceful demonstrations were integral to the movement, he was just one of its many figures alongside James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins and many others who are simply ignored in the film. The Civil Rights Movement would’ve existed in a very different form without Dr. King’s influence, but his absence wouldn’t eliminate the ongoing fight for racial equality.
Several moments in Our Friend, Martin also imply that Dr. King’s movement was popular following the Birmingham campaign, which is historically inaccurate. At the time of his death, Dr. King was a divisive figure, who would slowly grow more popular throughout the next few decades. Another egregious moment includes the school’s name change. This depiction implies that Dr. King’s legacy ended the South’s glorification of the Confederacy, but this is patently untrue. As of 2020, there are 48 schools named after Lee, and in 1999, the year of the film’s release, this number was likely higher. Our Friend, Martin‘s depiction of Maria as a custodian is also wildly inaccurate, as child labor was banned in nearly every industry except agriculture by the 1930s.
The film also overstates the role of John Kennedy in the Civil Rights Movement, while completely ignoring the president who passed the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy is portrayed as someone who worked with Dr. King to help desegregate the nation; however, Kennedy hardly passed any sweeping civil rights reforms during his presidency. Although Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act, this legislation was at a standstill from 1963 until his assassination the following year. This 1964 act, alongside The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, were all passed under Johnson, and were integral toward fighting segregation.
Our Friend, Martin fails to understand that Dr. King’s fight for racial equality was based around a movement of many people, not just one person. By ignoring the prominent figures around Dr. King, the film does a disservice to its depiction of the Civil Rights Movement. Although Our Friend, Martin hosts a noble depiction of Dr. King, it fails to understand the true meaning of his work.
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