The dark and troubling relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is well known and has been well documented. But I’m not sure it has ever been as thoughtfully considered as it is in Sam Pollard’s new documentary “MLK/FBI”. I had the opportunity to see the film at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and it has been on my mind ever since.
Pollard’s film is timely considering the country’s current conversations about race relations and social justice. It’s equally fitting that it comes out during a time when the FBI is under scrutiny and face accusations of (once again) abusing their powers. I’m sure Pollard is aware of his film’s relevance, but he wisely lets it come through naturally, covering his subject from a clear-eyed historical perspective.
“MLK/FBI” uses two parallel but frequently intersecting timelines in its effort to chronicle Hoover’s evolving FBI and King’s rise as a civil rights leader. Pollard uses a fascinating collection of archived footage, audio recordings, and news feeds accompanied by insightful narration from a handful of authors, historians, former FBI agents, as well as a friend and speechwriter for Dr. King.
J. Edgar Hoover was the very first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ran the organization for 37 years until his death in 1972. He served through a total of eight presidencies from Coolidge to Nixon. Under Hoover one of the the FBI’s chief undertakings was rooting out and exposing communists. Stanley Levison was a New York attorney with communist connections. He was also an advisor and friend to Dr. King which led Hoover to put his sights on the civil rights movement.
King was steadily growing in popularity and influence. His words of equality resonated with African-Americans across the country culminating with the famous March on Washington in August 28, 1963. Two days later the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence would deem King “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation from the standpoint of communism.” A year later and with the permission of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Hoover began wiretapping King, compiling countless tapes of private conversations and uncovering numerous adulterous affairs. While his actions were morally repugnant, King did nothing illegal so the Bureau put together a smear campaign aimed at staining the leader’s reputation.
Pollard’s examination isn’t exhaustive nor can it be considering the tapes connecting King and the FBI are sealed in a National Archives vault until February 2027. But what he does do is construct a strong moral case against the FBI’s targeting of King while also using the flimsiness of their communist ties claims to reveal far more troubling motivations. Hoover’s cooperation with the Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson adds an even darker shade to their political power and influence.
But at the same time Pollard doesn’t sugarcoat King’s transgressions. If the FBI was eager to create their own smoking gun, King’s extra-marital affairs provided them with the bullet. “MLK/FBI” challenges the almost saintly mythos surrounding Dr. King today while still showing him as the victim of a concentrated effort by the government’s principal law enforcement agency to discredit and silence not only him, but the entire civil rights movement. The film ends by posing a thought-provoking question – does an individual’s personal sins negate their work as a leader and their voice for change?
With “MLK/FBI” Sam Pollard merges history with cinema to reconstruct the often contentious relationship between the United States government and one of nation’s most iconic leaders. For better or for worse the film’s clinical, just-the-facts approach can feel a lot like a history lesson. And it does veer ever so slightly into conspiracy theory territory when speaking of King’s assassination. But Pollard doesn’t linger on the unknown. His film is about examining what we do know, highlighting the abuse of federal power to thwart a powerful national movement. The rest will have to wait until 2027.
“MLK/FBI” is appearing in several North American festivals before its scheduled release in January 2021.
VERDICT – 4 STARS