The timely and harrowing MLK/FBI explores a particular American history that isn’t so safely in the past.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is now a near-universally revered and beloved historical icon, but as Sam Pollard’s meticulous and quietly infuriating documentary MLK/FBI shows, this was not always the case, especially during King’s lifetime. Based on historian and King biographer David Garrow’s book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, and largely sourced from recently declassified documents and unearthed film footage, MLK/FBI fills in many damning details of the FBI’s extensive surveillance of King, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. This surveillance, which sought to personally discredit King and neutralize the perceived threat of the civil rights movement, is described by one of the film’s interviewees, former FBI director James Comey, as “the darkest part of the FBI’s history.”
Pollard, a veteran documentary filmmaker who also edited several of Spike Lee’s films, masterfully weaves together this archival material with present-day interviews with historians and King colleagues (including Garrow and Andrew Young). While compellingly laying out the vast scope of the FBI’s surveillance, he also shows how both government officials (including supposed allies such as JFK, RFK, and LBJ) and general public opinion were mostly in agreement about the threat King posed to American society. Much of the archival footage consists of clips from Hollywood films glorifying the FBI and depicting federal agents (or “G-men,” as they were colloquially termed at the time) as dashing heroes preserving the American way of life. Anti-Communist sentiment played a large role, and this was the initial tack the FBI’s actions against King took, focusing on Stanley Levison, a white Jewish lawyer and close advisor with ties to Communist groups. King’s refusal to end his association with Levison, even after being personally warned by JFK, was what led to the FBI’s wiretapping of King and his associates. While the FBI was pursuing their campaign to smear the civil rights movement as a Communist infiltration plot, fueled by Hoover’s fears of King becoming a “Black Messiah,” they happened upon evidence of King’s philandering and extramarital affairs. The FBI thereupon pivoted to using this as a means to personally ruin King’s reputation and discredit him in the eyes of his followers.
MLK/FBI is a necessary and timely reminder that far from the often anodyne and sanitized “I have a dream” historical figure that he’s often depicted as, King was a very divisive and controversial figure in his lifetime — “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” per an FBI memo — and who even lost many supporters when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. The film also leaves us with unsettled questions regarding King’s assassination, namely how anyone was able to kill him while he was under such intense surveillance, and whether the FBI’s obsession with taking King down personally led them to overlook or purposefully ignore the many threats on King’s life. But perhaps even more unsettlingly — particularly given the current president and attorney general’s attempts to smear current protests against police brutality, and especially Black Lives Matter’s prominent role, as dangerous sedition — MLK/FBI leads us to question whether the governmental overreach it depicts is as safely in the past as some would have us believe.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.