This film was screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
With the events of 2020, there is no better time to look at the past in order to forge a clear path forward. Documentarian and frequent Spike Lee editor Sam Pollard, known for works like Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me and Maynard, brings a Martin Luther King Jr. narrative as we’ve haven’t really seen on-screen before in MLK/FBI. Using archival footage and interviews with those close to King and the situation, the documentary film shows how FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover spent years targeting King and the Civil Rights Movement.
The general premise of MLK/FBI is not new and we don’t learn any unknown facts about King. But what we do get is the presentation and confirmation of everything we’ve known or speculated about the surveillance of King and why. For years, there's been knowledge that the FBI, under Hoover, surveilled Black leaders and Black groups. As history would make you believe, King was lauded by all, which is something that we have to debunk almost every week by “allies” who use King’s quotes out of context in order to perpetuate Black pacifism and non-violent protests. Year after year, King continues to be depicted as something that he wasn’t. MLK/FBI takes a hammer and shatters this theory in full, as the FBI branded him as the most dangerous man in America. How is the man that the government was so afraid of and made white America so uncomfortable somehow now the principal voice against unruly protests? That’s because he wasn’t that person.
For the most part, history portrays Hoover as someone who acted on his power and made it his mission to attempt to destroy King. This may be true, but what is not true is that the U.S. government was not complicit in all of this. As the documentary depicts, the government clearly knew what was going on and had no issue with it. One major point the MLK/FBI drives home is the complicity that the presidential administrations — both Kennedy and Johnson — had in the FBI’s surveillance of King. But let anyone tell it, they were King’s allies. That’s not entirely true.
The bureau had tabs on King as his public profile continued to rise among civil rights leaders. But what tipped the scale was his connection to Stanley Levison, a communist lawyer. As communism was Hoover’s big fish, this gave him even more reason to target King and this is when the wiretapping really began. But, as we know so far, the tapes only contain something that has been speculated for years — King had extramarital affairs. For some reason, the FBI believed this was reason enough for King to be removed by the general public as the hailed leader he was.
Hoover sought to use this information to destroy King as if this would detract from his work. Why? Black sexuality and masculinity were already seen as a threat to white people, and if one of the most revered leaders was being unfaithful, perhaps this would have led him to lose influence. The FBI director infiltrated King’s life, tapping everywhere he went, going as far as to work with hotels to get audio of King’s sexual activities. The plan didn’t work too much, as journalists both Black and white, didn’t pick up when the bureau made attempts to plant stories. The FBI went as far as attempting to blackmail King by sending him alleged tapes of said extramarital affairs, along with a letter which is generally considered by many as encouraging him to commit suicide. However, King was not distracted by any of this, and the film rightfully doesn’t give any time to him having anything to say about this alleged activity.
MLK/FBI may just boil down to being an amalgamation of things we’ve suspected, but it is still a must-watch to be educated on how dangerous the FBI and government can be with surveillance, especially given current events. The timing is uncanny, but it is sure to have even more of an impact considering the political moment we are in. Everything speaks for itself in the film, from interviews with King that most people haven’t seen to footage from Hollywood projects that have glamorized the FBI and made them look heroic.
For much of the film, Pollard strategically uses interview subjects in an interesting way, only using their voice. Then near the end, their faces are shown as the doc enters its most interesting aspect, the pending release of the tapes. The tapes can be unsealed as early as 2027. This is the unexplored aspect. The unknown. We just know that the tapes exist. We think we understand what may be on the tapes, but we don’t really know. Then, at this moment, the narrative of the entire film comes full circle: the content of these tapes doesn’t matter. The only thing that the release of the tapes will add to his legacy is the fact that he was a complicated man, as anyone else. And even though former FBI director James Comey, featured in the doc, doesn’t want the tapes released of the bureau’s “darkest chapter,” the evidence presented is damning enough. It shows that U.S. politics were corrupt then and not much has changed all of these years later.
MLK/FBI had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and subsequently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was acquired by IFC Films and will likely be released in the coming months.