NYFF58: “MLK/FBI” is a damning look at the U.S. government

MLK/FBI (IFC Films)

Sam Pollard’s latest documentary is a dense look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the Hoover administration’s attempts to silence him.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

When you think of an FBI agent, what comes to mind? The G-men of our collective imagination tends to look like a handsome guy in a suit, a suave enforcer of law and order. You probably don’t think of a snoop, cramped into a tiny hotel room, trying to dig up dirt on one of the noblest figures in American history.

Sam Pollard’s ambitious and thoughtful documentary, MLK/FBI, is keenly aware of this perception as it explores the actual history of the bureau’s relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Telling this story means untangling a web of recent history, from the shadow of the Cold War to the way the 35th and 36th presidents approached the Civil Rights movement to whatever was going on in J. Edgar Hoover’s head in a given moment.

Thankfully, Pollard and writers/editors Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli refuse to sensationalize this material. As docs go, this is about as far from Tiger King as you can get. Everything’s put in its proper context, from the FBI’s initial interest in King because of his close relationship with Stanley Levison—a progressive activist and communist—to a bureau memo labeling of King “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation” after the March on Washington. After all, Hoover and the FBI weren’t fringe figures: They represented a country that largely disapproved of King (a fact many are quick to forget).

Pollard and writers/editors Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli refuse to sensationalize this material.

And so the FBI began wiretapping King’s phones. And bugging his hotel rooms. All of these operations needed federal approval, with MLK/FBI gracefully tracing the ups and downs of King’s relationships with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. While history books have done their best to water down King’s politics to make them appear less radical, the doc understands that King, and all civil rights activists, were actively fighting to reshape this racist country, putting these heroes directly at odds with the bureau’s mission to uphold the status quo. (Also, you don’t need to be a history buff to see that J. Edgar Hoover was a real bastard.)

But what’s even more impressive is how Pollard tells this story. We don’t see any talking heads until the last 10 minutes, and while we still hear most of the necessary exposition from professors and folks who were present, their voices are contrasted with a variety of B-roll. The movie shows us how popular culture of the time depicted FBI agents; FBI/MLK also gives us lots of King. We see him schmooze on a talk show and deliver a slew of exhilarating remarks. Despite the bureau’s best efforts, King really does remain an inspiration and an icon. The agents assigned to spy on MLK may have been observing him in a creepy, voyeuristic way, but we never really breach his privacy.

Of course, the FBI did eventually find evidence of King’s extramarital affairs: audio they then sent to Coretta Scott King with a note suggesting King take his own life. Your ‘60s tax dollars at work. In the coming decade, these recordings will be made public. MLK/FBI future-proofs itself by anticipating this declassification and acting as a framework to interpret these tapes when they’re released. As the doc concludes, perhaps neither King nor the FBI were shining, perfect paragons of righteousness. But only one fought tooth and nail to make this country a better place.

MLK/FBI is due for release from IFC Films on January 15, 2021.

MLK/FBI Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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