‘MLK/FBI’ Review: A Damning Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s Attempts to Destroy a Civil Rights HeroBreaking News
tags: civil rights, FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr.
“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.
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