‘MLK/FBI’ Review: A Damning Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s Attempts to Destroy a Civil Rights Hero

Sam Pollard's searing overview of the FBI's attempts to blackmail King provide an essential new chapter to his story.
1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release the film on demand and in select theaters on Friday, January 15.

MLK/FBI” reveals shocking behavior by the American government, but the most troubling aspect of its revelations is that nobody had to answer for it. Sam Pollard’s sobering and essential documentary recounts the government’s efforts to blackmail, discredit, and otherwise disempower Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights movement, by recording his marital infidelities and wielding them like a blunt weapon. However, the most revealing takeaway from this searing overview isn’t that J. Edgar Hoover used every dirty machination at his disposal to take King down, but that most of the country seemed to think it was the right thing to do.

Among the many voices heard, several express awe at the impact of Hoover’s 48-year FBI reign, which allowed him to shape national identity with a racist framework that permeated society at the time, and continues to resonate now. Though Pollard draws from King biographer David Garrow’s book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the filmmaker has created a remarkable cinematic framework for injecting this frightening aspect of King’s story with immediacy.

Recalling the archival-based approach of “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” Pollard has constructed an absorbing tale of Black activism challenged by authorities and built it almost entirely out of the materials of the time, with interviews overlaid as voiceover. Crisp footage ranges from King’s “I have a dream” moment at the Million Man March to countless other rousing speeches, tense White House confrontations, and fragments of phone calls, some of which have only recently been unearthed. The result is a remarkable look at King’s rapid emergence as a celebrity activist and authority figure who managed to grow so powerful that the White House couldn’t afford to ignore his cause.

As this drama unfolds, Pollard manages the delicate balancing act of the title, pivoting from King’s story to the vast influence of the FBI at the time. As clips of ’50s-era noirs remind, the organization established itself in the public imagination as a heroic organization readymade to bat away criminals and Communists wherever they emerged. King presented a new kind of problem — a Civil Rights crusader whose legitimate cause made the government look bad even as it was unable to refute his mission. Historian Beverly Gage points out how Hoover’s fear of a “Black Messiah” led to the appalling and alarmist FBI memo declaring King “the most dangerous negro in America.” But that was a hard case to make against a man who preserved the idea of nonviolent protests at all costs.

So Hoover looked for alternate routes. “MLK/FBI” is  cautious when wading into the most incendiary reports made by agents who wiretapped King’s phone, including a bizarre allegation that King “looked on” during a gang rape. Pollard doesn’t try to refute King’s personal failings, but walks a delicate line between acknowledging these claims and showing exactly how Hoover attempted to exploit them through racist ideas about Black male sexuality.

Even so, as the movie explains, it was only when King’s activism extended toward the Vietnam war that Hoover was able to score the full support of President Lyndon B. Johnson. With the greenlight to go wild, the FBI tried it all. Pollard assembles an infuriating argument as the movie reveals the reams of incriminating FBI documents, while showing how little they actually accomplished — at least until an assassin’s bullet changed the story.

Hoover tried targeting King’s associations with communist lawyer Stanley Levison, wiretapping King’s phones, and mining for information in King’s inner circle, including photographer-turned-informant Ernest Withers and James Harrison. The nadir of these efforts arrived in the FBI’s fabricated letter, sent to King and his wife, that was designed to sound like a defected King supporter imploring the man to kill himself. (As one subject says, the effort reads like “someone culturally trying to pass as Black.”)

These incidents come to light in irrefutable records that today’s U.S. government couldn’t possibly deny (and perhaps, given the state of the current administration, wouldn’t care to). While Pollard doesn’t have the most recent leadership to weighing in, he comes close enough with James Comey, who refers to the letter as “the darkest part of the FBI’s history.” It’s a remarkable admission that allows Pollard to tie the movie’s focus to present-day concerns without forcing them into the frame.

Pollard, a stellar director of historical documentaries like “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” who also edited much of Spike Lee’s work, manages to engage with King’s legacy without duplication prior efforts, from 1970’s “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis” to Ava DuVernay’s rousing “Selma.” Though Pollard doesn’t capture every monumental step in King’s journey, he works in a beautiful montage — built around one heartfelt talk show appearance — to let King explain his dramatic rise, and it’s sufficient to set the stage for the troubling chapters that follow.

Even as “MLK/FBI” excels at exploring its subject, the movie sometimes struggles to gather its disparate ingredients into a unified whole, pivoting from King to the FBI and back again with a slippery grasp of forward momentum. Though some of its documents have been newly declassified, Pollard zips through many of the details, doubling back on assessments of the FBI’s motivations from new angles and risking repetition in the process. Yet even as it does, “MLK/FBI” retains a remarkable fixation on the tragedy behind its central showdown, and arrives at an epilogue that explains precisely why it deserves to be told today.

No, “MLK/FBI” doesn’t shoehorn in recent Black Lives Matter protests or clips of police brutality. These percolate enough in viewers’ minds to sit there anyway. Instead, the movie ends with a fascinating rumination on the covert tapes the FBI gathered on King, due to be declassified in 2027. But should they? However that conversation plays out in the future, “MLK/FBI” does a masterful job of getting it started.

Grade: B+

“MLK/FBI” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. 

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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