- Emma Simmonds
- 11 January 2021
Insightful and impressively assembled documentary about the FBI's pursuit of Martin Luther King
An absorbing blend of often beautifully restored and moving archive material, MLK/FBI takes as its focus the surveillance of civil rights icon Martin Luther King by the FBI, whilst rivetingly communicating the tensions of the time. Directed by Sam Pollard, the Oscar-nominated producer of 1997's 4 Little Girls, it'll be eye-opening for some, enraging for many.
A collection of well-informed pundits – ranging from academics and journalists, including the writer David Garrow, whose book provided the framework for this film, to those involved in the civil rights movement itself – talk us through history, remaining unseen until the closing moments. Instead, we're kept firmly rooted in the imagery of the era – a shrewd choice, though without knowing each speaker's particular expertise or role in events it can be frustrating not to be able to contextualise their contributions.
If there's a little background on King's rise, the film is primarily concerned with his time in the spotlight as a leader of the civil rights cause from 1955 to 1968, with particular emphasis on the period where he was personally under FBI surveillance, from 1963 onwards. Initially looking for communist leanings, when the Bureau gained recorded evidence of King's extramarital affairs, they found a new angle of attack on this seemingly upstanding Baptist minister and family man. Armed with material that they hoped would be enough to undermine his influence over the Black community, they tried to exploit the situation to no avail, resorting to increasingly troubling tactics.
Supported by FBI documents that are now in the public domain – though not the recordings themselves, which are not accessible until 2027 at the earliest – Pollard presents a dismaying picture of an attempt to bring down one of the all-time great humanitarians. It shows how the fixation on King's sex-life was fuelled by fear and ugly stereotypes, taking a particular look at FBI director J Edgar Hoover's obsession with nailing King, and highlighting Hoover's suffocating influence on the institution he was to lead for half a century, and which had been built in his image.
There's plenty to provoke anger here, but King's dignity, eloquence and ability to inspire remains as breathtaking as ever in numerous speeches and interview extracts, and his personal struggles feature too, including his terror of being exposed as an adulterer, and the backlash he received for belatedly speaking out against America's role in the Vietnam War. It's a film that delves fascinatingly into an episode that James Comey, a recent director of the FBI, who you may remember was thrust into the spotlight himself, describes as 'the darkest part in the Bureau's history.'
Available to watch on demand from Fri 15 Jan.