TIFF Review: Sam Pollard’s riveting ‘MLK/FBI’ looks at Hoover’s attempt to destroy an American hero
In my June op-ed, about America’s growing moral dissonance systemically reinforced by the entertainment content we consume, I describe the normalization of the military industrial complex and intelligence arm of our government. The piece touches upon Operation Paperclip, the program created to recruit Nazi scientists during WWII, and its CIA equivalent, Operation Bloodstone—assimilating former Nazi officers into our intelligence agencies. Fueled by anti-communist paranoia, a mindset so steeped in fear that it directed our international and domestic policy for decades to come, Americans willingly overlooked the atrocities done by genocidal fascists.
Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI narrowly focuses on J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King, Jr., and how the former utilized the FBI’s illegal domestic surveillance program (COINTELPRO) to monitor him, with the ultimate intent of destroying his reputation and influence. The agency first took notice of King because of his unprecedented ability to mobilize; the day after the August 1963 March on Washington, FBI second-in-command Bill Sullivan sent a memo describing King as, “The most dangerous Negro in America.”
The FBI now has term limits on its directorship because of Hoover’s unprecedented tenure: he headed the agency for 48 years. In that time, he enjoyed sweeping power and influence on America’s trajectory. It’s impossible to understate how much Hoover’s hatred of communism played a role in the justification of unjustifiable acts. Certain that America’s sovereignty depended upon its constant vigilance against communist ideology, Hoover said in a statement before Congress, “[The Communist Party of America] is far better organized that were the Nazis in occupied countries prior to their capitulation.”
King met Stanley Levison through community activist Bayard Rustin in 1957. Levison, who was active in the communist party during the 1950s, quickly became a trusted advisor to King. It was this connection that gave the FBI justification they needed to approach Attorney General Robert F Kennedy for approval to wire tap members of King’s inner circle, including both Levison and Clarence Jones. From there, they inadvertently learned of King’s extramarital indiscretions, immediately and aggressively shifting the focus of their surveillance, and without the approval or authority of anyone outside the FBI.
Obsessed with King’s sexuality, Hoover perceived it as another facet of radicalism—a threat to the traditional, white-picket fence way of American life. Professor and author Donna Murch perfectly encapsulates, “Interest in King’s sexual life is inseparable from the history of racial violence in the United States.”
Grotesque propaganda equating black men as sexually insatiable “beasts,” who prey on white female purity, ties inexorably to the core justification used to keep black men excluded from society.
MLK/FBI argues that Hoover and the FBI weren’t rogue actors, even though they essentially functioned as a lawless organization maintaining a surveillance state. Rather, they were representative of the American institution itself; Hoover and his men saw themselves as stewards of a social order that put straight, white men at its pinnacle. The agency went out of its way to recruit G-Men that fit the image: WASPish, conservative, clean cut, athletic. Black civil rights leaders (Malcom X, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and the Black Panther Party), communists, and anyone who threatened this order were branded as subversives and enemies of America.
Hoover had a hand in molding the public perception of the FBI, promoting its image as America’s defender. Hollywood productions like Warner Brothers’ FBI STORY, and I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI, or Columbia Pictures’ WALK A CROOKED MILE served as propaganda vehicles. I would’ve liked a deeper focus on this subject—particularly in regards to the FBI’s involvement in studio News Reels of the era—or a glimpse at how the US military/federal agencies have similar influence in current Hollywood productions. The presence of pro-institution, anti-black, and anti-communist propaganda still shapes American society to this day.
The culmination of King’s growing reputation as a threat to the nation’s power structure is now an indelible part of our history: the full content of his FBI files will become available to the public in 2027. There’s little doubt that the extent to which a federal agency monitored and waged psychological warfare against one of America’s own citizens will shock many. However, the idea that this was the “darkest chapter in the FBI’s history” is almost laughable: their entire purpose is to maintain the status quo.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films has picked up the doc for US release.