“When you construct someone as a great man, there’s almost nothing more satisfying than revealing the opposite.”
This sentence, uttered early by historian Beverly Gage in Sam Pollard’s riveting, enraging documentary MLK/FBI, essentially sums up the ethos behind the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s campaign to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. both during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 1960s, all the way up to the day of MLK’s assassination, the FBI surveilled the Civil Rights leader with phone calls, hotel rooms, and undercover informants. Many of these documents were only recently declassified, which Pollard synthesizes into one of the most vital and comprehensive accounts of governmental malfeasance in recent memory.
While we’ve heard snippets of the FBI’s dogged attempts to discredit MLK in the odd thinkpiece or Drunk History episode, Pollard details the lengths to which J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI as a tool to delegitimize what he felt was an endemic threat to national security. At first, they claim their surveillance is for altruistic reasons; they stand behind the Civil Rights Movement but express concern that King confidante Stanley Levison, at one point an avowed Communist, was a liability to the cause.
Then, as the doc elucidates, the point becomes more personal: Hoover’s implied to have resented the grander spotlight the gregarious King enjoyed. Not only that, he feared the arrival of a “Black Messiah” who would lead the people to rise up against the government, someone they couldn’t control. Naturally, tapped phones, bugged conversations, and all manner of dirty tricks followed. And after MLK and LBJ fell out over the former’s opposition to the Vietnam War, what thin gloves existed were soon off. What followed was what former FBI director James Comey admits is “the darkest part of the FBI’s history.”
Taking the same kind of archival-only approach as other docs of the era like The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Pollard (a longtime film editor who’s worked with Spike Lee and has a robust roster of docs to his name) crafts a gripping collage of photos, memos, and footage that demonstrate the tension between both halves of its equation. Tied together by interviews with historians like Gage, King contemporaries like Andrew Young, and biographer David Garrow, Pollard seeks to understand both sides of the conflict, while never taking his eye off the ball. From MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to footage of FBI propaganda films and the cop-friendly media of the time, MLK/FBI soaks us in an uninterrupted picture of the era as filtered through the media — illustrating the tension between the law-and-order righteousness of the FBI contrasted with the compelling please for equality and justice from King on behalf of disenfranchised African-Americans throughout their country’s history.
One of the most crucial points Pollard makes, especially important in an age where the words of MLK are twisted by conservative concern-trolls to dismiss Black Lives Matter protests, is that the dirty tricks we see in today’s discourse about police brutality are nothing new. Squint a little at the protest signs and scowls of white commentators of the day, and you hear the same strident opposition to the Civil Rights Movement as you hear now. Gay Pauley asks MLK on a talk show whether the violence that occurs during his protests “hurt [his] cause,” with all the feigned concern of an aunt sharing a Tucker Carlson video on Facebook; an old white woman asserts that he went to “Communist training school.”
The FBI, the doc asserts, could get away with such dirty tricks because they were operating along the American mainstream of the time — which resisted such radical efforts to secure Black civil rights in this country. No explicit remarks about modern-day BLM activities are present in the doc, but they don’t have to be. The parallels are clear enough that Pollard trusts us to fill in the blanks.
Central to Hoover’s strategy to take down King was their evidence of his many extramarital affairs, which Pollard’s experts take great care to tie into white people’s racists fear of Black male sexuality. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum: as footage from Birth of a Nation and cartoons of the time show, Blackness was tied to beastly, sinful behavior in the white American consciousness.
Refreshingly, Pollard tackles the question of MLK’s infidelities head-on, recognizing the effectiveness of such a tactic, and the way it complicates someone many see as a perfect figure. The claims aren’t disputed (save for a particularly thin, outlandish claim that King “looked on” during a gang rape of a young Black organizer), but allow us to see a man whose personal failings were being capitalized on to disrupt the good work he was doing.In 2027, what records remain classified of the FBI’s surveillance of MLK will be released, and we’ll learn the full nature of what kind of dirt the organization had on one of America’s most influential figures. How the public perception of King might change after that, no one knows. In the closing minutes of MLK/FBI, even our speakers don’t have the answer. But the way Pollard chronicles the deliberate campaign by one of the most important intelligence agencies in the world to thwart social progress is enthralling and inescapably damning.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release MLK/FBI in US theaters January 15, 2021.