Sam Pollard’s masterful documentary MLK/FBI follows in the footsteps of Ava DuVernay’s 13th by forcing us to examine the ways in which law enforcement works against Black Americans: in her film’s case, the prison-industrial complex; in his, the darkest moment in the FBI’s history: their surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. As we are only now beginning to understand how the media has shaped the image of cops as good guys who only break the rules to protect you from the enemies, Pollard’s film is a much-needed addition to this debate as it examines how, from the time King first rose to prominence with the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his death in 1968, both the FBI and the media worked overtime to villify him.
Pollard’s film is made up almost entirely of news broadcasts, contemporary footage, and memos, while offscreen voices take us through the story, a technique also used this year in Don Hahn’s Howard, a bio-doc about Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman. It was after the 1955 bus boycott, when he became a national figure, that King first made contact with a former Communist named Sam Levison. Hoover, who created the FBI largely as a response to the first Red Scare of the early 1920s, used the second one as an excuse to take notes on King out of the belief that Black Americans were easy recruits for radical far-left philosophies. His surveillance accelerated after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when the FBI began monitoring King’s affairs by renting adjacent hotel rooms, recording them through the walls, and then noting who went in and out.
Hoover believed that turning King into a far-left philanderer would destroy his image as a noble, righteous man, but the film’s interviewees argue this was a reflection of his white patriarchal worldview. While there is a tradition of radical far-left activism among Black Americans, from Marcus Garvey to Angela Davis, these philosophies do not represent the majority: King and his disciples, like John Lewis, were not swayed either by Communism or, later, Kwame Ture’s separatism. As Andrew Young, one of the last living marchers from that period, tells us, King reminded them that their demands for equality and practice of non-violence were radical enough — insane, even — to grab white America’s attention.
This propaganda, however, still had an effect on White Americans, particularly after King came out against the Vietnam War. In a clip seen following his April 4, 1967 speech where he first voiced his opposition, an old white woman tells a reporter that she “knows” MLK was a Communist despite there being no evidence for it. Some of these clips are framed through the border of an old TV, like when reporter Gay Pauley (the original “Karen”) talks down to King by accusing him of creating a “crisis atmosphere” with his marches. The sheer amount of words she uses to make her point mask the ones we know she wants to say.
Far worse, however, was the second prong of Hoover’s strategy, which led not only to the Bureau pushing the limits of legal surveillance, but also reflected the malicious stereotype that Blacks were moral degenerates who, if given even a little freedom, would defile white women. Pollard uses clips from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film in which (among other things) a White woman kills herself rather than submit to the advances of a free Black man, to show how popular culture enforced this stereotype in the eyes of White Americans. Hoover, it seems, wanted to do to King what Griffith did to an entire race.
And yet despite his bigotry, Hoover never lost his standing in society, even as King lost his following his anti-Vietnam speeches. Besides, who could argue with the FBI? While we are more critical of them today, under Hoover, Pollard shows how they were depicted as noble crusaders in films like Walk a Crooked Mile and TV shows like The FBI; yes, these men may break the rules, these stories argue, but only to protect you and your family from the “enemy” — a nebulous force that changed with the political winds of the moment.
King only attacked Hoover indirectly — whereas Hoover called him “the most notorious liar in the country,” the harshest words from King come in interviews accusing the Bureau of negligence for failing to investigate the deaths of the 4 little girls in Alabama and the Freedom Summer murders. The two men only met once, in the mid-60s, with no cameras present. But no documentation is necessary: in the footage Pollard shows of King talking to the press afterwards, the look on his face shows something that I have never seen in all the clips I’ve watched of him — fear.
Whether there was more in the FBI’s files that King feared is something Pollard leaves unanswered, but not altogether unaddressed. Towards the end, he shows a controversial memo alleging that King was witness to a rape, pointing and laughing at the female victim. The veracity of this accusation will likely never be proven — for all we know, it could have just been a low-level agent’s way of pleasing Hoover — and if it’s a lie, then it demonstrates how there was no level the bureau would not stoop to hobble the movement for Black equality.
King’s assassination in Memphis, however, deprived Hoover of the glory he might have taken in his rival’s death. Following his death, the Bureau rushed to find a culprit — perhaps, the film argues, to save face — but the man they eventually caught, James Earl Ray, may not have actually been King’s assassin. Like the rape allegation, we will likely never know the full truth behind who pulled the trigger.
Pollard only shows us his interviewees at the film’s end, in a kind of curtain call, as they debate whether or not the public should even hear the King tapes when they are made public in 2027. Will they sully our image of him? Or will they continue our much-needed reckoning with the FBI? We don’t have to wait — Pollard has already started this discussion for us, and it seems that the reckoning will not be over Dr. King’s imperfections, but why the system that monitored them ever existed in the first place. This is one of the best films of the year.
Note: MLK/FBI is streaming online for $15.00 as part of the New York Film Festival starting tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST and continuing through Saturday, September 26th, at the same time. It will be released in theaters and streaming platforms by IFC on January 15th, 2021.