“What we are best at is convincing ourselves of our own righteousness.” It’s with this sentiment that the fundamentally important new documentary MLK/FBI begins. Epigraphs and opening words often prove to be excellent indicators of the films that follow—it’s here where a lot of films tell you up what they’re at least trying to say. Whether or not they are ultimately successful is something that then only reveals itself in time. Directed by Sam Pollard (Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me), MLK/FBI recounts the FBI surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr., and its opening words indicate exactly why it’s a crucial film: it provides an important re-education regarding the life and legacy of an American icon.
In his own lifetime, King was regarded by key figures within the US establishment—particularly, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover—as a dangerous radical, and they did everything within their power they could do discredit him. Nothing, including information about his personal life uncovered through bugging his hotel rooms, was off-limits. Long before the notion of a US “culture war” became prime op-ed subject matter, Hoover and the FBI actively sought to wage one against King. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the FBI responded by mailing a letter to King’s Atlanta home threatening to leak information about his extramarital affairs to the media and told him there was only “one way” out (i.e., for King to kill himself).
As the documentary clearly lays out, although King’s message was fundamentally one of non-violence and peace, Hoover saw him as a fundamental threat because he was a Black man with a message and an audience. The contents of his message really didn’t matter on this front; that he had the audacity to speak up and be listened to was enough to make him unpardonably dangerous, as far as Hoover was concerned.
MLK/FBI is a documentary that clearly seeks first and foremost to inform, albeit in an elegantly cinematic way. It’s an archival doc through and through, and though it makes use of audio commentary from an eclectic group of experts, including former FBI Director James Comey, King’s advisor and close friend Clarence Jones, and Hoover expert Beverly Gage, it sidesteps the “talking heads plus B-roll” formula in favor of spotlighting archival footage, still images, and documents. In addition including plenty of iconic footage and images of King that you have undoubtedly seen before, the film’s commendable archivist, Brian Becker, also managed to dig up some far rarer gems.
Growing up in the US school system, King is the sort of figure introduced so early you don’t remember not knowing who he was. But it’s a version of his life sanitized past the point of recognition, a story of a practically beatific man who marched on Washington and some other places and gave a speech about Black and white children holding hands to solve racism. It’s a story that doesn’t do the man or the challenges he faced justice, nor does it ultimately provide real insight to the issues that continue to plague the US because it’s so far removed from reality.
Speaking to my own experience, it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that the March on Washington’s full title was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” or the fact that one of the things that it sought was a livable minimum wage that remains higher, adjusted for inflation, than any minimum wage that can be found anywhere in the US to date. Hearing the way King’s name gets brought up in conversations today often highlights just how many full-grown adults still only know the grade school version of the story. The version of the story that leaves out the parts about the backlash King faced after taking a stance against the Vietnam War and questioning America’s priorities because his commitment to peace and non-violence compelled him to do so, not to mention the ways in which the US establishment actively and aggressively sought to destroy him. On these fronts, MLK/FBI provides a hugely important re-education.
Admittedly, MLK/FBI’s premise about uncovering the full story behind the FBI’s surveillance of King does ultimately feel ever so slightly misleading. While a trove of FBI documents declassified last year featured reports summarizing findings from the agency’s surveillance of King that detailed lurid and in some cases genuinely concerning accusations against him, there is significant room for skepticism with regards to the accuracy of these claims, and the actual surveillance tapes themselves will remain sealed until 2027.
Very much the sort of “setting the record straight” doc that seeks to lay out established facts and avoid speculation as much as possible, MLK/FBI runs into the issue of having a crucially important story to tell when a significant aspect of the story remains shrouded in darkness. It’s an important tale of American history and what we pick and choose to remember, but it’s also still in progress. Ultimately, though, it is such an important and timely documentary that it’s understandable why Pollard and his team decided not to wait several years more to make it, even if it feels like it will be in need of some sort of companion or continuation at that later date.
MLK/FBI was originally reviewed out of NYFF 2020. The film opens in select theaters and on VOD on January 15.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: NYFF