January 18, 2021 MLK/FBI (Documentary Review)
This is a story that is far from over.
From 1955 to 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a peaceful 20th century American revolution. His nonviolent Civil Rights Movement changed the face of our society, earning him the title of the Moral Leader of Our Nation. But, to use some terribly modern slang, there are always ‘haters’.
During the 1960s, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, called for extensive surveillance on King, who was considered to be a controversial and subversive figure. Their aim, while initially considered standard national security measures, would eventually become a search for the salacious. With the ability to document and divulge the secrets of the Civil Rights leader’s private life, they hoped to humiliate and ultimately weaken his authority as a leader.
Inspired by a series of newly declassified FBI documents, the clash of personalities between King and Hoover is brought to light in a new documentary entitled MLK/FBI. Just in time for MLK’s birthday and national holiday, January 15th, IFC Films delivers the film to select theaters as well as VOD.
Directed by Emmy Award-winner and Oscar nominee Sam Pollard (Eyes on the Prize documentary series, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me 2017), MLK/FBI is based on the book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis by David J. Garrow, and was written by Benjamin Hedin (Two Trains Runnin’ 2016) and Laura Tomaselli (Deja View 2013, Honky Tonk Moonlight 2018). A careful blend of biography and historical commentary, the film utilizes television and film footage from the 1960s, nearly all in black and white, to depict MLK’s rise to the front pages and the subsequent surveillance that this inspired.
The success of the nonviolent Civil Rights leader, who was able to inspire and motivate legions, gave him immense power, which, ironically, led to his designation as the “most dangerous Negro in America.” This, in turn, placed him on the FBI’s radar, and ultimately inspired Hoover to undertake the surveillance campaign in hopes of smearing King’s character and ending the Civil Rights Movement. But this is not just the story of two powerful men, this is also a look at the prevalent attitudes throughout the ‘60s, where our society was trying to move forward from the McCarthyism of the 1950s and its irrational communist fears. The film is, of course, also a tale of White fragility, and a White patriarchy that could not fathom or accept change when the eve of desegregation arrived; with King and Hoover serving as two cogs in a complicated moment that was hundreds of years in the making.
But you do not need to be a student of history, particularly Civil Rights history, to follow MLK/FBI. It moves through Dr. King’s personal background as a young Baptist Minister in the South, to the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the August 1963 March on Washington that took a then Black Southern movement and turned it into an international Civil Rights revolution. From the famous “I Have A Dream” speech to King’s repeated insistence that hate be met with love, to his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, the story is detailed so that anyone can follow its progression. Whether you choose to appreciate MLK’s legacy and respect his contributions to US history is entirely up to you.
There is a responsibility when crafting documentaries such as this, one that requires the creator to never provide information out of context. In this, viewers are gently guided through a series of events, provided factual evidence, then allowed to develop their own opinions and takeaways. In this, there is no force feeding of points of view herein, no biased agenda, and considering the discussions of dissent and subversion, it’s pivotal to Pollard’s project that he presents his thesis carefully—perhaps more important than ever, given the current state of racial unrest in our nation.
So while we learn that Hoover was no friend of King’s, the background is provided to make it clear that his views are, in fact, representative of the mainstream consciousness at this time in history. It’s easy to fault Hoover—really easy, in fact—but MLK/FBI is not about two men with opposing beliefs; it’s a mirror that reflects our modern struggles. And it does so with such an eerie perfection that, at times, you will wonder if you are watching news footage from last week, not 54 years ago. This, unfortunately, is also the spiritual downside to the documentary: a cruel reminder that no matter how far King and his Civil Rights pioneers pushed, there is still a long, long road to travel.
But there is no doubt that great strides have been made. And perhaps King’s greatest legacy is his nonviolent resistance in the face of repeated cruelty and abuse, and his ability to move on from these trials and meet hate with love. It’s a timeless lesson, one that has no color or creed, and one that is desperately in need of repeating in 2021. As such, this is a story that continues on today, still without end. In the words of Dr. King himself: “The only way for people to grapple with their prejudices is to admit that they have them.”
It would be unfair not to note that there is a debate embedded in the heart of the film. In February 2027, the surveillance audio tapes of Dr. King are slated to be released to the public. So the question that MLK/FBI asks us to ponder is this: Should this information be released? Do we have a duty to history to enter those recordings into the evidence of our nation’s past, in hopes of understanding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. better as a person, or is there a larger, more fundamental issue of privacy, considering their very existence is a dense moral minefield?
We don’t have the answer. But for its beautifully balanced, powerful delivery of important US history, Cryptic Rock gives MLK/FBI 5 of 5 stars.