The MultiCultural Center screened a documentary yesterday evening about one woman’s struggle to bring the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. to China, followed by a discussion with the film’s director.

“Bringing King to China” follows the director’s daughter, Caitrin McKierna, in her effort to debut the play “Passages of Martin Luther King” at the National Theatre of China. Written by Stanford professor Clayborn Carson, the play is based on the life of the American civil rights leader. The film focuses on McKiernan’s mission to prove that the philosophy behind King’s message transcends place and time and the difficulties she faced bridging the cultural divide.

Director Kevin McKiernan said one of the biggest obstacles facing Caitrin was her age. A young female foreigner, Caitrin faced a culture that sees age as a hierarchy, and many were not accepting of her leadership role, he said.

“That’s very difficult because in China, there is a tremendous respect for the elderly,” Kevin McKiernan said. “It was very difficult, then, to have a co-production where this young, mid-20s, barely-out-of-college woman was on an equal plateau with the head of the entire most prestigious acting company in China.”

McKiernan said there were also differences in handling business overseas, since Chinese convention dictates that all production fees should be paid upfront. In the film, National Theatre members were sometimes frustrated at Caitrin McKiernan’s changes during production, causing conflict over direction and the play’s ability to maintain historical accuracy.

“They wanted to see the outline, they wanted to see the story written, they wanted to see a script and these were designated by contract steps that would release more funds,” Kevin McKiernan said. “There were a couple members of the [theatre] company that didn’t comply with that so Stanford wouldn’t release the money to pay actors.”

Still, it all came together in the end, McKiernan said.

“It was terrific the way the play was received,” Kevin McKiernan said. “In fact, every performance was sold out and the Chinese newspapers reviewed it well along with the L.A. Times and New York Times.”

Caitrin McKiernan said she hoped the message would help the people of China see King’s nonviolence movement in the context of their own society.

“We thought if Gandhi’s [message] could come to Mississippi and Alabama to teach Americans well maybe Martin Luther King could come to China and do the same,” said Kevin McKiernan.

Kevin McKiernan said the film also showed how King’s message has been altered over time to fit certain political agendas and is often diminished to his “I Have a Dream” speech. The film serves as a reminder that there is more to King’s teachings than his fight for civil rights, he said.

“He came out against the war and began to struggle with this global vision that it wasn’t skin color — although that could play a part in it — but it was the inequity between the powerful and the powerless,” Kevin McKiernan said. “He saw that there was going to be no way to deal with poverty unless you dealt with the cause which was war. He saw that important but he concentrated on the far bigger.”

Academy award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who attended the event, said there were two elements in the film: empowerment and its potential nonviolent implications.

“It’s so beautifully illustrated in the film how we re-write history,” said Wexler. “If the system robs people of history then you rob them of the awareness of their power. The weapons people have is of nonviolence and that’s the message of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King and it should be the message to all of us.”

Second-year linguistics and political science major Diana Alvarez said the film was at times overwhelming in its ability to highlight similar struggles amongst a wide range of seemingly different cultures.

“There were so many different points that the film was trying to make,” Alvarez said. “It was trying to make the connection between Dr. King’s message and the war in Iraq and the Chinese director’s message that Americans always try to dictate their culture and their people.”

According to Alvarez, the film reflected how American culture may sometimes simplify King to certain sound bytes without exploring his lesser-known works in as much depth.

“We just had Martin Luther King Day and everyone is happy for the day off, but they don’t really take into consideration all the steps he had to go through and exactly what it meant,” Alavarez said.


A version of this story appeared on page 4 of Thursday, January 30, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.