MLK/FBI, the latest film by Black history documentarian Sam Pollard, is making the rounds of many US festivals this fall and is well worth tracking down. Pollard has done a marvelous job gathering video footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizing it into a coherent biography of the civil rights leader. In proceeding chronologically, it also provides a tragic chronicle of King’s physical and emotional decline, as the energetic man with a ready smile in the 1950s looks exhausted and depressed in his final years.
As the second half of the title implies, Pollard’s documentary simultaneously explores the FBI’s antagonism towards King, enabled by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and ultimately nurtured by President Lyndon Johnson, after King spoke out against the Vietnam War. This aspect of MLK/FBI is helped along by newly declassified documents, with commentary by historians and former members of King’s inner circle.
Unsurprisingly, given their exclusive focus on the positive aspects of his legacy, we don’t hear from members of King’s family, since much of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment centered upon King’s extramarital sexual activity. (Though Kennedy only gave his blessing to an investigation of MLK’s possible connections to American Communists, J. Edgar Hoover went well beyond the parameters of this mission, later with LBJ’s full knowledge.) MLK/FBI is hardly salacious in examining Hoover’s obsession with MLK’s sex life, but it doesn’t avoid the FBI’s uglier allegations, either.
The historians in Pollard’s film provide instructive context for Hoover’s Ahab-like fixation on MLK. Besides simple jealousy over King’s notoriety – Hoover adored the fawning PR that movies and television lavished on his agency – the FBI director’s heritage was that of a Southern segregationist. As such, he bought into racist fictions of Black male virility as a danger to White womanhood and the political status quo. (It’s worth noting here that D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation, was released when Hoover was 20, a mere nine years before he became head of the FBI.) Pollard’s background as editor of Spike Lee’s early films shows through in the sequences illustrating these points. Just as Lee loves to do, Pollard uses copious examples from popular culture of the relevant eras.
However, for a veteran documentarian, Pollard makes some puzzling stylistic choices that detract from his film. Until the end of MLK/FBI, we don’t learn the qualifications of his expert commentators, something that would’ve been more helpfully placed at the start. In addition, Pollard uses some of the same footage or stock images two or three times, a decision that would’ve made a lesser film tedious, but still detracts from his momentum.
Nonetheless, his footage of King spans a multitude of settings: at home with Coretta and their children, in the pulpit, giving media interviews, in the midst of protests, meeting with political leaders. This diversity permits a satisfying biographical overview, with illuminating glimpses of his psychological complexity.
These video clips remind us that the hero with a federal holiday in his name was once widely reviled. Even before his stance on the Vietnam War prompted the mainstream media to slander him as a near-traitor, we see multiple antagonistic interviews. In one, Black America is blamed for its material poverty; in another, he’s held responsible for White violence against his nonviolent resistance. The more that changes, the more stays the same.
Pollard’s film is also a useful corrective for revisionists who paint J. Edgar Hoover as a rogue operative. Far more popular than King in their concurrent lifetimes, Hoover’s prioritizing of the supposed Red and Black Menaces over White-on-Black violence was as mainstream then as it is now. MLK/FBI reveals that Hoover’s agency failed on multiple occasions to warn King of threats to his safety. Pollard fairly asks whether an FBI that acted as though Black lives mattered could’ve enabled the civil rights leader to live past that dreadful day in Memphis.
(For help in creating your own DIY Virtual Film Fest, please read my earlier column.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )