VOD film review: MLK/FBI
James R | On 16, Jan 2021
Director: Sam Pollard
Cast: James Comey, Beverly Gage, Martin Luther King Jr
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“The most notorious liar in the country” is how J Edgar Hoover described Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s, and if that attack sounds like a figure of the establishment trying to undermine an emblem of social change, it’s only scratching the surface. MLK/FBI charts the increasingly intense surveillance that was placed upon the civil rights leader, unveiling the extent to which the Federal Bureau of Investigation was determined to sabotage his influence and legacy.
It was after King’s “I have a dream” speech that the FBI singled King out as a threat against the country, and what followed was a thorough – alarmingly so – shadowing of his life. That was initially hinged upon his ties to Stanley Levison, who was already caught up with the Communist Party witchhunt, but what emerged while the tapes were running was that King was having affairs – and so, what began as professional and political also became personal, tapping into racial prejudices and stereotypes that surrounded Black men.
While all this was going on, Hollywood presented the FBI as a noble force for national good – mainstream cinema, and particularly action blockbusters, have always leaned conservative in the way that the police, CIA, bodyguards and superheroes defend the status quo. Director Sam Pollard presents all of this context through a range of interviews with eyewitnesses and historians, using them as voiceovers to illustrate archive footage and images.
The result is an absorbing and interesting dissection of a lesser-explored chapter of American history – right down to a handwritten letter that’s disturbingly dark. With the tapes still under seal until 2027, due to a federal court order, we don’t get the whole picture of what’s on them and the full extent of King’s private and public life, but MLK/FBI isn’t a film about that. It inherently acknowledges King as a flawed person, yet what sticks with you is his astounding willpower to continue his work with the movement in the face of a dogged onslaught by the state. That his legacy continues today regardless is perhaps the most important truth of all.