New York 2020 Review: MLK/FBI Reminds That Dr. King's Legacy Resonates Now, More Than Ever
Sam Pollard's documentary is a searing indictment of government surveillance and a smear campaign on one of the most revered figures in American history.
Packed to the brim with historical documents and recently declassified materials, Sam Pollard, documentarian and editor of Spike Lee's films, among many others (Mo' Better Blues, 4 Little Girls, Chisholm '72, Venus and Serena), brings us MLK/FBI, a searing indictment of government surveillance and a smear campaign on one of the most revered figures in American history.
The film is drawn from David Garrow's book, The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis, in which the author and King biographer accuses King of participating in a rape in a hotel room in 1964, based on a declassified, handwritten memo from FBI documents that is now on the National Archive website.
With Trump's 'Law and Order' rhetoric rising amid nationwide protests against police violence and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement during the worst pandemic in American history, as well as the nation's top cop Bill Barr's threat to charge the racial justice protesters with sedition, MLK/FBI truly resonates now, more than ever.
Pollard gets it right by framing the film with King's rise as a leader of the Civil Rights movement from Birmingham, AL days, to the March to Washington and his famous speech, to LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act into law, to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to his opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People's Campaign, to his assassination in 1968 against the backdrop of the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and the head of the bureau's Domestic Intelligence, Bill Sullivan, obsessing over 'the most dangerous negro in America' and figuring the way to 'neutralize' King.
Threatened by King's eminence as the leader of nationwide non-violence protests, Hoover, with the blessings of Robert F. Kennedy (then Attorney General of New York and later the nation), ordered unprecedented surveillance on him, tapping his and his colleague's phones and bugging hotel rooms where he stayed. Hoover first wanted to tie him with the communists. Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer who served as King's advisor, has had a tie with the communist party.
Media also played a big part creating the 'G-men' and FBI culture Hoover cultivated after his own image -- a conservative Christian white jockey male. These government recruits were indoctrinated to see themselves as guardians of the American way of life and perpetuate white dominance. Communists and their sympathizers were seen as direct threats to that racial hierarchy.
It is amazing to see people still buy this belief, since we still witness this in the current election cycle. As the 'King is a communist' narrative didn't bear any fruit, they then switched to more salacious material on his private life, as these bugs turned up some goods on his extramarital affairs.
Throughout interviews with Civil Rights luminaries and King confidantes Andrew Young, Clearance Jones and historian Beverley Gage, as well as David Garrow and an unseen James Comey, Pollard poses difficult questions on how we handle information on a private life of a public figure, when the source is from a place as prejudiced and biased as Hoover's FBI.
Pollard also rightfully sheds a light on many uncomfortable truths. However a maligned Hoover is portrayed in some history books, he was in charge of the FBI for 37 years until his death in 1972. He had the ears of the so-called friends of the movement in the highest power: JFK, RFK and LBJ and conspired against King. LBJ and Hoover are even on tape discussing the sordid private life of King and what to do about it.
The simmering waters of discontent rose to a boiling point after King received a Nobel Prize and Hoover called him a notorious liar. Johnson arranged the meeting with the two to diffuse the situation. There is footage of King emerging from the meeting describing the polite conversations he had with Hoover. However, the obsessed Hoover played the Black deviant card, which dates all the way back to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and sent a threatening letter, guised as coming from one of his Black supporters, along with a tape recording of one of his hotel room encounters to his wife, Coretta Scott King.
The emotional impact must have been immeasurable to the King family. But there were so much work to be still done: Selma, The Voting Rights Act and protests against the Vietnam War.
Pollard is quick to note that the general public was on the side of Hoover, not King. Even Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an influential Black organization and integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, was not on board with King's stance against the war. He didn't have any business having an opinion. Sound familiar?
MLK/FBI strongly resonates with what we are going through as a nation right now: Hoover's notion of racial hierarchy is still very much in place in the law enforcement mindset, as police unions endorse a candidate whose rhetoric is nothing but racist, along with an irrational fear of anything that sounds like 'communism' or 'socialism,' putting way too much emphasis on the personal lives of elected officials, and the list goes on and on.
But more importantly, it resonates that in no other social movement since King and the Civil Rights Movement, have we had a real possibility of a fundamental change in this country, than the Black Lives Matter Movement. Those sordid FBI tapes on King are sealed until 2027. We can deal with Martin Luther King Jr., the man, then and there. It's his victories over insurmountable odds that we need to take lessons from and be hopeful, not a smear campaign designed to take our eyes off the ball.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com