Documentary finds contemporary echoes in FBI's persecution of Martin Luther King Jr
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In the exquisitely constructed, deeply unnerving "MLK/FBI," filmmaker Sam Pollard takes viewers behind the looking glass into the shadowy world of governmental surveillance during the mid-century civil rights movement, a programme of spying, infiltration and harassment that reached its perverse apotheosis with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since King's assassination in 1968, White America has embraced him as one of the nation's great moral leaders. But in this meticulously constructed narrative, which centres on FBI files that are scheduled to be declassified in 2027, Pollard reminds viewers that, at the time of his death, King was anything but universally admired.
By the time he came out against the Vietnam War and began linking race and class via the Poor People's Campaign, Hoover's years-long campaign to peg King as a Communist had taken hold.
Archival footage of anti-King demonstrators spouting lies they've uncritically accepted about the Baptist minister bear an uncanny resemblance to scenes of Americans who today believe that Democrats and their leaders worship Satan, traffic children and stole the 2020 election.
In fact, part of "MLK/FBI's" great value is in showing us the structural realities of white supremacy, paternalistic authoritarianism and the ability of popular culture to distort public opinion that still hold dangerously true. But its power lies in resuscitating the past with vivid, immersive immediacy.
Using mostly black-and-white news footage and bringing his sensitive, precise gifts as an editor to bear (Pollard has edited several of Spike Lee's movies), the filmmaker invites the audience to watch King morph before our eyes from a self-effacing 26-year-old preacher to a man who was both defiant and wary in his final months.
Defiant, wary but far from perfect, as "MLK/FBI" takes pains to address head-on. Using interviews with such firsthand witnesses as Andrew Young, Clarence Jones and former FBI special agent Charles Knox, Pollard delves into the history of Hoover's career with the federal law enforcement agency, his quest to root out Communists and the path that took him to King's door and, eventually, bedroom.
Once Hoover discovered that King was having extramarital affairs, he became even more single-minded, tapping the activist's phone lines, bugging his house and placing informants in proximity. When King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover redoubled his efforts, culminating in the notorious tape and anonymous letter sent to Coretta Scott King, obliquely suggesting that her husband kill himself.
The facts of Hoover's persecution of King - while so many murders of civil rights workers were going un-investigated by the FBI - are sobering enough.
But with the help of historians Beverly Gage and Donna Murch, Pollard makes a far more complex and damning case that Hoover's obsession wasn't aberrant, but an expression of shame and ambivalence around his own sexuality, as well as the embodiment of messages America had long been steeped in, fusing African American political aspirations with sexual threat.
And, as historian David Garrow observes, trenchantly, the hounding of King was business as usual at the FBI, which was "fundamentally a part of the existing mainstream political order."
Wisely, Pollard keeps these voices off-screen for most of "MLK/FBI," allowing the images to tell the story until he gracefully introduces his interlocutors in the epilogue. The result is a film that does more than impart facts, or even tell a story: It builds a world, and once we're in it, takes us on a potent and unforgettable emotional journey.
Four stars. Unrated. Available on various streaming platforms. Contains references to sexuality and sexual assault. 104 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.