It’s easy to build up figures in our minds—in fact, we frequently revel in the opportunity to find historical figures with little to no flaws to give us someone to look up to. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. is one such figure, seemingly larger than life despite the fact that he died only a little over 50 years ago. Media in recent years (from Ava DuVernay’s narrative feature “Selma” to another new documentary, “The Sit-In,” which I reviewed on here last week) has served as a reminder that King was a man and wasn’t perfect, and perhaps none do that more successfully than director Sam Pollard’s new documentary “MLK/FBI,” which screened at the virtual St. Louis International Film Festival this month. But while simultaneously humanizing King, the film also gives us a myriad of new reasons to look to him and all he accomplished despite constant attempts to undermine him.
The undermining in “MLK/FBI” is largely being done by the latter half of the film’s title. Based partly on David Garrow’s book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.” and partly on newly declassified documents, Pollard’s film explores the completely out-of-line FBI surveillance of King that began in the late 1950s and continued to intensify all the way up to King’s assassination in 1968. Referenced in an FBI memo after delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” the FBI investigation started primarily because of King’s alliance with Communist lawyer Stanley Levison, but escalated as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover overstepped and became obsessed with using private information gathered from wiretaps to attack King’s character. The extent of the investigation is alarming—they tapped not only King’s home and office, but hotels he stayed in across the country whenever he traveled. Rather than discovering that King was up to any criminal activity, they discovered that he was having affairs with multiple women, and despite the fact that that isn’t illegal and doesn’t warrant a federal investigation, the FBI still pursued those leads; at one point, someone even sent the Kings a tape and a message implying that he should kill himself.
“MLK/FBI” doesn’t deliver much that’s new in the way of facts, and it occasionally feels unfocused as it shifts between telling the story from the perspective to King to the FBI, but the manner in which it is edited and the way it analyzes the information it puts forth is impressive. The film tells its story entirely through archival footage and photographs, firmly rooting the viewer in the time and place of the narrative, with the various historians whose voiceovers are heard throughout the film only appearing on camera at the very end to share their parting thoughts. The film hits many of the highlights of King’s career, that many viewers are likely already familiar with, but doesn’t linger on them too long, and rather ingeniously and concisely tells King’s backstory through an interview with the man himself discussing his upbringing and family, the film cutting back and forth between photos and home movies. The film also discusses the public’s perception of the (white) FBI versus that of the Black man; we see popular crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s that portrayed FBI investigators as heroes who took out threats against democracy contrasted with stereotypical cartoons that portrayed the Black man as something other, something threatening. It’s a reminder that King wasn’t all that popular with the masses during his lifetime, and that plays a big part in how and why the FBI were able to get away with their surveillance of him—they had the support of the public, and the support of the rest of the government. They may have initially seen a threat of Communism, but what they ultimately saw was a threat against their white privilege.
In any other year, I would have likely perceived the full extent of the FBI’s efforts not to uphold democracy, but to push back against progressive change, as shocking. It is shocking, and it should be, but in the current political climate it’s far from unbelievable. “MLK/FBI” doesn’t reference current events like the Black Lives Matter protests or comment on the timeliness of its subject matter at all, but it feels urgent all the same. Toward the end of the film, we see a clip from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was killed, and it’s just as moving now as it much have been in 1968:
“All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
This story isn’t over yet. The FBI’s tapes of King will be declassified in February 2027, and there is some debate (brought up at the end of the film) as to whether or not they should be released to be public. I don’t know that they will have much impact on the public’s perception of King. As “MLK/FBI” shows, he had his faults. He also persevered in his crusade despite the FBI’s attempts to take him down, stopped only by the bullet of his assassinator. But the film leaves us with less of a question as to what the tapes will reveal, and more of a challenge. Don’t blindly accept everything you are told. Don’t accept the narrative taught to you in school, or told to you by the government, that institutions like the FBI solely exist to protect American citizens. Challenge authority. Challenge America to be, as King said, “true to what you said on paper.”
“MLK/FBI” will be released in theaters and on demand by IFC Films on January 15. Runtime: 104 minutes. Not rated.