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‘MLK/FBI’ Review: King, Hoover and the Tale of the Tape

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In a way, “MLK / FBI”, Sam Pollard’s new documentary, tells a simple story that the title suggests. Relying on long-secret documents – and awaiting the publication of records in the National Archives – the film records the surveillance and harassment of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by the FBI.

From March in Washington in August 1963 until his assassination in April 1968, King was of almost obsessive interest to the office and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. Tons of paper, miles of tapes, and countless hours were spent following every action and utterance of the civil rights leader. Hoover viewed him as a unique threat to national security and was determined to lessen his influence.

So much – including wiretapping and hotel room mistakes – is pretty well known. But Pollard, relying on David J. Garrow’s controversial book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr .: From Solo to Memphis, overlays surprising details about Hoover’s campaign against King with thoughtful interpretations of his meaning. The result is exciting, visually fascinating and intellectually exciting at the same time. It also raises pressing, sometimes uncomfortable questions about power, privacy, and the ethical challenges of examining the past.

These challenges are signaled at the beginning as Garrow and other scholars – notably Beverly Gage from Yale and Donna Murch from Rutgers – view the status of the FBI tapes, especially those revealing King’s sex life, as historical evidence. The records won’t be available until 2027, but it’s widely believed that they document frequent infidelity. Can you trust the ribbons? How will their content affect King’s reputation? The experts’ answers are nuanced and cautious. Some – including former FBI officials – argue that it would be better if the tapes went unheard.

This is an argument for the present and the future, about what we should know and how to deal with that knowledge. In a sense, the main job of Pollard and his sources is to provide context for these debates. The voices he collects do not always agree, either on facts or on meaning. Much remains to be discovered and contested. By intertwining the history of law enforcement, activism, and institutional politics, MLK / FBI offers new ways of looking at potentially old news.

“Look” is the key word. Pollard, whose long career as a producer, editor and director includes “Two Trains Running”, “4 Little Girls” and “Eyes on the Prize”, brings the prose of historical discourse into harmony with cinematic poetry. Rather than subjecting the viewer to interviews with speaking heads, he combines the thoughts of scholars and the memories of survivors with news material, stills, and the occasional clips from old films. The speakers, which include the close associates of King, Clarence Jones and Andrew Young, as well as Garrow, Murch and Gage, do not appear on the screen until the end. They’re more narrators than characters.

This simple decision draws attention to the actual players who are brought to dramatic lives through Pollard’s artful direction. Hoover and King are hardly obscure characters – many films have been made about both of them – but you will understand each one a little better when you look at them side by side. You are reminded of how deeply rooted Hoover was in the American government and how much power he wielded, but you also watch a man who may be as fearful as ambition or Machiavellian calculations. For him, King stood for disorder, communism, the disruption of racial hierarchies and sexual norms.

For his part, King emerges as a young leader – he was 26 years old at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, 35 years old when he won the Nobel Prize, 39 years old when he died – and was fighting a risky battle on multiple fronts. Hoover’s surveillance was supposed to ensure King’s failure, and at the time white public opinion favored Hoover. It should not be forgotten that King encountered suspicion and hostility, including from alleged liberal leaders and commentators, especially after speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War. For its part, the FBI has been widely viewed with awe.

“MLK / FBI” is fair to all parties without being neutral or shy. It is an exemplary historical documentary in that regard – without fear of moral judgment, but also attentive to the fine grain of ambiguity that sticks to the facts. It doesn’t force the worries of the present into the past, but rather invites you to ponder how what happened then might explain where we are now. The story took place a long time ago, but it’s not finished yet.

MLK / FBI
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. To rent or buy in cinemas and on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms as well as pay TV operators. Please read the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching films in theaters.

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