Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The incisive MLK/FBI revisits the shameful surveillance campaign against Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. in MLK/FBI
Martin Luther King Jr. in MLK/FBI
Photo: IFC Films

Note: The writer of this review watched MLK/FBI on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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“What would MLK think?” shameless elected officials and pundits ask, like clockwork, when spewing insincere remarks about protests demanding justice for Black Americans. “He wouldn’t approve of that,” they insist, reducing the murdered civil rights leader who preached non-violence to just another prop in the hypocritical charade they sell as real patriotism. What modern conservatives willfully ignore is that, in the 1960s, the most dangerous figure to the political establishment was indeed King, who mobilized the Black citizenry and imbued them with tactical resolve in their dignified plight for equality. That’s one point made by the exceptional, methodically constructed new documentary MLK/FBI, which zeroes in on how the government, through its law enforcement agencies, diligently set out to weaponize ill-obtained information on Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life to diminish his influence.

Rather than a didactic biographical endeavor, this latest in a long string of projects about the African American experience from veteran director Sam Pollard is an in-depth examination of the bureau’s history as it relates to their surveillance of the pastor-turned-galvanizing-orator. In place of talking heads, Pollard deploys only the audio from his interviews, filling the screen instead with archival footage and photographs. Of that treasure trove of material, what most effectively immerses us in this specific cultural moment is the large amount of clips of King himself speaking. Mostly pulled from television appearances, these allow him to express his thoughtful, determined stance directly. One instance in particular shows him impossibly collected as he responds to virulent accusations and loaded questions about whether African Americans were “asking for too much” too quickly.

For context, Pollard talks to some of King’s closest contemporaries, like Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, as well as as notable academics like Donna Murch and David J. Garrow. Their observations, opinions, and first-hand accounts are the building blocks of a pragmatic history lesson. The tone of MLK/FBI can be excessively solemn at times, though maybe that’s a preemptive measure—a reflection of how those wronged in this country are expected to present their arguments in level-headed fashion or be deemed too emotional and hence not “objective.” Never forget that white America polices even the way in which those who are othered choose to talk about their trauma.

MLK/FBI
MLK/FBI
Photo: IFC Films
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Pollard and his editor, Laura Tomaselli, skillfully lay out the cultural backdrop, where a collective fear of communism was used to justify the inquiry into King’s activities. (Stanley Levison, a close ally of MLK, had ties to the party.) Orchestrated by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (head of the agency for almost 50 years) and enabled by multiple administrations, including those of JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson, the investigation hinged on the discovery of King’s extramarital sex life after the bureau tapped his phone and followed him across multiple hotel rooms. Those unethically procured tapes will be made public in 2027, and MLK/FBI ponders whether the recordings will tarnish his legacy or help the public better understand King—a famous historical figure who requires no further mythologizing—as a man instead of an icon.

Likewise, and perhaps even more interestingly, Pollard’s feature denounces the role of popular culture (movies and television) in lionizing law enforcement, namely FBI agents, as saviors of a white, Christian, conservative American identity. Since Hoover shaped the organization based on that worldview, the film’s experts infer that he likely saw Black male sexuality as inherently deviant, only adding to his disdain for King. His agenda seemed to take the shape of a personal vendetta as MLK’s prominence grew.

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To watch MLK/FBI days after a seditionist insurrection—fueled by the same institutionalized hatred that empowered the KKK at the peak of its atrocious influence—washes away any absurd impression that things have meaningfully changed. Incisive yet never explosive, Pollard’s movie implicitly creates parallels between past and present, especially around the notion that this country only demands nonviolence when those airing grievances aren’t white and labels everyone else a subversive force. Although he adhered to the peaceful tactics right-wing folks selectively and self-righteously trumpet, King was still seen as a threat to national security. That’s because what the ruling mass fears is not violence but Black people confronting them with the abhorrent past and calling into question the policies that preserve a perverse racial imbalance.

MLK/FBI
MLK/FBI
Photo: IFC Films
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As the interview subjects in MLK/FBI emphatically explain, all forms of Black organizing have always been met with harsh resistance because they inherently endanger the image of righteousness that the white majority has been indoctrinated to uphold. “We just wanted America to be what America said it was supposed to be,” says Young, a key figure in the civil rights movement. Today the modus operandi is the same—it still relies on delegitimizing opposition. To the right (and some on the left, too), Black athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem is only unpatriotic. If Black citizens and their allies take to the streets, they deem the demonstrations riots; when white terrorists storm the capitol, they call for understanding and unity. To believe, or even claim, that racism hasn’t permeated the structures of power in this country since their inception is a convenient delusion. It only favors the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Reinforcing that awful truth, Pollard makes the quietly searing case that Hoover’s vindictive attitude toward King was far from an isolated act of monstrous bigotry but a natural display of the standard and fully accepted sentiment toward BIPOC then and now, even if often varnished with sanctimonious defenses. The American and widely systemic sickness of racism that killed MLK, and continues to take the lives of Black people, is one that a single activist could never hope to eradicate. Nor should the responsibility of addressing it fall on the shoulders of those it oppresses. Pollard doesn’t explicitly apply his thesis to the 21st century—the story he retells is contained to King and Hoover’s era—but no viewer in 2021 should have much trouble making the connection. As long as the very idea that Black lives matter remains controversial, so long as our institutions refuse to reckon with the reality that they’re protecting not an ideal but whiteness itself, a cure to the country’s worst social malaise will remain out of reach. MLK/FBI is a perceptive reminder that this uphill struggle is ongoing and nothing new.

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