MLK/FBI is an insightful, adroitly constructed documentary which seeks to mine new truths from a recent, tangible past. Filmmaker Sam Pollard pits the aspirations, endeavours and character of a great, but flawed humanitarian against the racially-driven, underhand tactics of a tyrannical government organisation.
Along with its title, Pollard’s latest is a film of three-letter acronyms – RFK, LBJ, the KKK – perceived reality and blurred lines. Lines that we must read between on redacted memos; prison cell bars we look through and the invisible, yet violent barriers to progress; angular steps from which speeches of great dreams will be given. Most crucially, perhaps, are the lines over which some will go to achieve their ends. A tremendous credit sequence sets up these visual indicators of division, defiance and despicable acts. The power of harnessing information, of an establishment controlling the public narrative and pushing an agenda for its own ends are brought to the forefront.
Such methods should be keenly felt by astute viewers the world over now, but Pollard looks behind that thinly veiled, highly subjective curtain. Focusing on the decade described by former Bureau director James Comey as “the darkest period of the FBI’s history, a wealth of expertly curated library footage transports us to 1955, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spearheads what will become the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the historical events and touchpoints are familiar – the March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech, the ending of bus segregation in Montgomery, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
To list more would do a disservice to the impressive research, writing and editing of MLK/FBI. It is extremely informative, featuring testimonies from academics, peers of King’s, authors. That these subjects are heard only in voiceover for the majority of the film, introduced on camera in a late coda, is an interesting choice by the director. It both limits the intrusion of talking heads, allowing newly uncovered documentation to dominate, but permits a frame of reference to their viewpoints only in retrospect. Pollard and his team never go so far as to use the word ‘propaganda’, but frequent inserts of film and television from the time suggest just how gosh darn great the FBI were, mister.
Or at least that’s what they wanted you to think. The influence and employment of American popular culture to mould public opinion was apparent then and strikes a chord today, in an age of popularity over policy. However, viewed through our modern lens of fake news, clickbait and wilful manipulation of the media, it is knowledge of the FBI’s advanced surveillance techniques, and most notably how they were employed, which gets under the skin of the subject matter. How rules were bent, broken and concealed in order for control, amid both personal and national interest, is as pertinent now as it was for J. Edgar Hoover.
Head of the organisation for an extraordinary 48 years, his justification for extensive wiretapping and progression from investigating King’s alleged Communist sympathies, to outright invasion of his private life (and now well-known extra-marital affairs) is demonstrative of the lengths he would go to bring down a man deemed “the most dangerous negro in America.” That Hoover made the FBI “in his own image” – white, conservative men – means that in all the murky, grey areas of their work, this was, for him, still very much black-and-white conflict.
When political motivation failed, personal attacks were used to undermine his marriage, to bring him to an end. And though it is just a singular oblique that divides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his titular foe here, a wall between hotel rooms or key line in a speech, however history judges either man, they are and forever will be inextricably linked. MLK/FBI is an earnest, thought-provoking addition to a canon of films that shed light on a movement that continues unabated today.
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is available now on Dogwoof On Demand.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63