Documentary Review: ‘MLK/FBI’

Greetings again from the darkness. “Free at last.” Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington is partially shown, yet documentarian Sam Pollard’s film proves that MLK was never free, and still isn’t, even 50 plus years after his death. Based on David J Garrow’s 2015 book, “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From “Solo” to Memphis”, the film looks at FBI documents detailing what can only be described as FBI Director J Edgar Hoover’s crusade to destroy the man some viewed as “the moral leader of our nation”, and others viewed as “the most dangerous Negro in America”.

Most anyone who has a general knowledge of US history in the 1960’s is aware that Hoover was focused on knocking the revered MLK off his pedestal. What the new documents and the film show is that Hoover was not a free-wheeling rogue (at least as far as King was concerned), but rather a tool of the informed administrations he served. Phone taps, surveillance, and undercover agents were all utilized and authorized in the campaign to discredit King’s credibility and expose him as morally compromised.

The extra-marital affairs are no revelation, but the letter sent encouraging King to kill himself, along with the audio tape recordings of consensual affairs comprise what former FBI Director James Comey labels, “the darkest part of bureau history”.
Rather than the usual talking heads, the film plays the interviews over the non-stop archival footage and photographs. Those we hear from include diplomat and activist Andrew Young, King speechwriter Clarence B Jones, Yale historian Beverly Gage, retired FBI agent Charles Knox, and author David Garrow. The film goes back to 1956 when King was a Montgomery, Alabama preacher and takes us through his assassination in 1968 Memphis … a 13 year non-violent movement for Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Poverty.

We learn that Hoover and William Sullivan (Head of FBI Intelligence) first thought that King’s downfall would be his connection to communism via his advisor Stanley Levison. When that failed, they decided to expose King’s non-monogamous activities which they felt would surely cause him to lose followers. The connection between King and the LBJ administration seemed strong right up until it wasn’t – due to King criticizing the money going to the Vietnam War, rather than to solve poverty in this country. Mahalia Jackson’s beautiful singing over the opening credits leads us right into the quandary of whether releasing the secret recordings and documents is a further invasion of privacy, or is it reasonable historical research? Pollard wisely doesn’t play any of the recordings during the film. More FBI documents and recordings are scheduled for release in 2027, and that same question will be pertinent then as well. Surely by now we’ve learned that people can accomplish great things, while themselves being imperfect.

Available January 15, 2020 Video on Demand (VOD)

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