104 Mins(4 out of 5)
Reviewed by: Sam Hollis
MLK/FBI is an enlightening, inspiring, and infuriating film from this year’s Doc Edge programme. While many documentaries have recounted Martin Luther King Jr’s rise and untimely demise, director Sam Pollard chooses to focus on his tension with the FBI, enclosing arcs about media influence, racial paranoia, and corruption.
Believing King to be a threat to the “American way of life”, the FBI, as directed by J Edgar Hoover, undertook widespread surveillance of his private activities in the 1960s. By tapping his phones and bugging his home and hotel rooms, they hoped to expose secrets of the minister’s sex life and communist ties. With the release of newly declassified documents, we can dissect the agency’s conduct for the first time.
MLK/FBI forces us to leave the context of the 21st century behind and observe how King’s plight was received by the American public of the day, as well as the image of the FBI that was proliferated throughout the country. By intercutting clips from various cop shows and advertisements, we are shown how Hoover carefully constructed a portrait of his organisation and its agents: heroic, clean-cut, and white.
Pollard is aware that many stories have been told about King, and thus he doesn’t swerve from his chosen subject, giving the film a concise, lean structure. It is narrated by the likes of King confidants Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, Hoover chronicler Beverly Gage, and former FBI director James Comey, whose appearance forges a connection between Hoover’s investigation of King and his of Donald Trump.
In order to criticise the FBI’s eavesdropping, we must first accept that we too should not be privy to this information. The film creates a fascinating oxymoron; in a contemporary world, where King’s legacy remains influential, we have a responsibility to understand him as a person, but if we so disagree with this behaviour, why are we here? When the tapes are released in 2027, the public will have access to recordings of King’s private affairs, the impact of which remains to be seen.
Anecdotes from MLK/FBI will likely sicken you, as they should, but it stands as a timely, superbly constructed document that all should embrace.