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Review: ‘MLK/FBI’ explores FBI’s lawless surveillance, attempted disruptions of civil rights leader

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 14, 2021

The documentary “MLK/FBI” explores FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., above.  (IFC Films)
The documentary “MLK/FBI” explores FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., above. (IFC Films)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

When a public figure transcends the realities of their own life to become a symbol, or an icon, it can be difficult to remember that they were, indeed, human, too. This becomes one of the motivating theses of Sam Pollard’s illuminating documentary “MLK/FBI,” alongside another, equally important charge.

Using newly declassified documents and testimony from witnesses and historians, Pollard’s film examines the ways in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, recklessly and lawlessly surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. in hopes of discrediting a moral leader whose ideas about civil rights posed a threat to a status quo that kept white men at the top of the social hierarchy.

The Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated documentarian Pollard has crafted a remarkably layered film dense with information and revelation about King and also about an almost obsessive campaign lobbied by the FBI to discredit him using an incredible overreach of its powers to surveil the civil rights leader.

Pollard uses the new FBI evidence, as well as the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” by David Garrow, as the basis for the film’s arguments, which are woven together from archival footage, documents and Hollywood films with audio from historians, scholars and close confidants of King’s layered underneath the images.

This approach to documentary filmmaking, using archival footage and snippets of significant pop cultural ephemera, calls to mind Raoul Peck’s staggering documentary about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” But “MLK/FBI” is more than a cinematic essay or examination of race relations and the fight for civil rights. It’s an argument for the humanity of our revolutionaries, flaws and all, a humanity that has been either systematically denied or weaponized against them.

Pollard’s interview subjects, including scholars Garrow, Donna Murch, Beverly Gage, former FBI agent Charles Knox and FBI director James Comey, as well as King friends and colleagues Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, discuss the ways in which the FBI persecuted King, not only surveilling him, wiretapping the homes of close allies and bugging hotel rooms, but also infiltrating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference using paid informants to report on his movements and the inner workings of the organization.

Hoover and his deputy, William Sullivan, were so threatened by King, beholden by racist notions of Black male sexuality, coupled with his message of nonviolent revolution for Black people and the poor, that they didn’t just seek to surveil him, but to disrupt him and his work, sending anonymous threatening letters and salacious recordings to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. The tapes of King’s private endeavors will be unsealed in 2027, and Pollard’s film seems to be an attempt to start the conversation about them in advance of their release.

Comey describes the surveillance of King and other Black civil rights activists as the darkest part of the bureau’s history, and it is. But what astonishes about Pollard’s film is just how current it feels, a reminder that the propaganda playbook stays the same. While Hoover, Sullivan and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson wrung their hands and dropped bombs over Communism, the dreaded C-word was lobbed at King and his cohort in a gross misinformation campaign, calling to mind contemporary political rhetorical tactics.

What’s even more astonishing about “MLK/FBI” is the continued relevance of King’s words and sentiments, as he speaks to the intersection of race and class, the importance of nonviolence in revolutionary work and the undue oppression of centuries of enslavement Black folks in America faced.

As he describes the futility of instructing a “bootless man” to “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” it’s a sentiment that rings true even today. The argument for understanding and accepting King’s complicated, perhaps problematic personal life, is that this hero was human, too, and the world is changed, little by little, by the people who dare to dream for more.

Review ‘MLK/FBI’ •••• Credits: Directed by Sam Pollard, starring David Garrow, Donna Murch, Beverly Gage, Charles Knox, James Comey, Andrew Young, Clarence Jones. Running time/rating: 1:44, not rated

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