MLK/FBI Review: TIFF 2020 – /Film

mlk/fbi review

There’s a dark shadow cast over the life and career of J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI Director who created the G-Man persona and ruled the Bureau with an iron fist for over four decades. Even if you want to overlook the unconfirmed rumors, the fact remains that for all his righteousness, Hoover did not do things by the book. He made the rules up as he went along, and bent them to suit his own needs. And when it comes to Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s common knowledge that Hoover despised the Civil Rights leader and his mission.

But in the years since King and Hoover’s deaths, a presumption has sprung-up that Hoover was acting on his own, independently, and that the much of the power structure of the U.S. government was oblivious to his actions. But as Sam Pollard‘s excellent documentary MLK/FBI reveals, that’s simply not the case. Hoover wasn’t a rogue actor. People in power knew what Hoover was doing – and they were fine with it. As one interview subject puts it, “The FBI was part of the mainstream political order.”

Martin Luther King had been on the FBI’s radar in a casual manner as he rose in prominence, but it was his connection with communist lawyer Stanley Levison that really got the Bureau’s attention. Communism was J. Edgar Hoover’s biggest target, and the fact that King was associating with Levison was enough for Hoover to get the FBI to start tapping King’s phones. And it was from these wiretaps that Hoover’s agents made an unexpected discovery: King was unfaithful to his wife.

As MLK/FBI explains it, King’s infidelities were all Hoover and Head of FBI intelligence Bill Sullivan needed to destroy King. In their eyes, King’s sexual affairs made him a hypocrite – he had no grounds to be a moral leader. Of course, that was the cover they used, and they might have even believed it. But as MLK/FBI makes it clear, it was really ingrained racism that lead to the FBI targeting King. As one interview subject puts it, communism wasn’t the FBI’s biggest target – Black people were. As Hoover and company saw it, King and the Civil Rights movement were the “greatest internal threat to the United States” – Black people had no right fighting for their freedoms in the eyes of men like Hoover. They were simply meant to know their place.

To watch MLK/FBI now is nothing short of infuriating. Because as we watch the events unfold decades ago it becomes painfully apparent that nothing has really changed, and maybe nothing will. While the doc never goes as far as drawing connections between the government’s approach to King and Black people and how the Trump administration approaches race relations, it’s hard to miss. Hoover and his goons may be gone, but those in power still see Black people standing up for themselves as a great threat.

Using archival footage and clips from TV and movies, director Sam Pollard crafts an engrossing if upsetting portrait of the FBI’s crusade against King. Pollard does bring in experts to discuss the details, but he wisely avoids the talking head approach that so many documentaries rigidly adhere to. Instead, we never see those being interviewed until the final few moments, and even then, we don’t see everyone. The lineup includes writer David Garrow, whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis inspired the documentary; Beverly Gage, a Professor of History & American Studies; Donna Murch, Associate Professor of History; Clarence B. Jones, one of Dr. King’s speechwriter; Andrew Young, who worked with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Charles Knox, a retired FBI agent; and James Comey, who…well, you know who he is and what he’s done.

MLK/FBI displays a compelling, unblemished portrait, and it does so thanks to Pollard’s archival-based approach. Had the filmmaker interrupted his footage with constant talking-heads cutting in, the rhythm would be choppy. By keeping the interviewees off-screen, Pollard is able to draw us entirely into the world that King inhabited. Sure, the footage is in black and white, but it’s still clear as day. And by cutting in footage from other sources – G-Men in The FBI Story going about their work, for instance – Pollard doesn’t need to rely on recreations. This is by no means a fresh approach, but so many docs succumb to paint-by-numbers storytelling that whenever something comes along to buck the system it seems vibrant and alive (for instance: there are no drone shots here, thank god).

While MLK/FBI paints Hoover’s FBI in the harshest of lights, it also takes care to point out that Hoover wasn’t an outlier. Even proponents of Civil Rights like Robert F. Kennedy were willing to agree to wiretaps of King. And while King and Lyndon B. Johnson had a strong relationship at first, King’s speaking out against the Vietnam War was enough to get LBJ to turn on him as well. And then there were the people outside the government. There are several interviews here with ordinary citizens of the era proclaiming disdain for King, citing unfounded conspiracy theories as their reasoning (something that will seem all too familiar right now). At one point, Hoover went so far as to say, “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country,” and polls taken afterward found that 50% of White America agreed with Hoover, while only 20% disagreed, with the rest having no opinion at all.

If there is a light at the end of this tunnel it is that for all of Hoover and the FBI’s efforts, for all of their unlimited power, they never managed to destroy King’s legacy. But still, questions linger. As one FBI interviewee puts it, if the Bureau was watching King 24/7 – as they were – shouldn’t they have had some inkling of the presence of James Earl Ray, King’s assassin? The question is raised, and before any further conspiracy theories can take root, MLK/FBI moves on. But it lingers; it haunts.

Did King have affairs? Yes, even those who knew the man are willing to admit that as a fact. But did King cheating on his wife negate all his Civil Rights work? No, of course not. For all his greatness, King was human, and humans are flawed. The FBI tapes that allegedly contain the sound evidence of King’s affairs are sealed until 2027, and the question is asked in the doc: will they tarnish King’s legacy when they finally see the light of day” They shouldn’t, but if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that a large chunk of the American people doesn’t exactly employ critical thinking very well. MLK/FBI is an essential film. And it’s a film relevant to where we are at this moment.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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