‘MLK/FBI’ Strips Back the Legend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To Reveal a Man With Strengths and Flaws
Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI opens in 1963 at the March on Washington. It was just five years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s death and eight years after he was thrust onto the global stage as America’s moral leader. It was an arduous role for anyone to carry, certainly for a Black man who rose and fell amid some of the most tumultuous decades in our nation’s history. Yet, whether he was ready to shoulder this burden or not, Dr. King did so despite drastic attempts to undermine him at every turn.
Using historian David Garrow’s book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., as a framework and some of the FBI’s declassified files on King, Pollard unveils the FBI’s crusade against Dr. King the did not end until the day he died. Through stunning archival footage and modern-day audio interviews from people like Civil Rights leaders Clarence B. Jones and Andrew Young and historians like Garrow and Beverly Gage, MLK/FBI is as much about Dr. King is it is about J. Edgar Hoover and W.C. Sullivans’s obsession with him. The FBI was intent on dehumanizing King with a five-year-long campaign that involved wiretappings, secret recordings, and spying to ruin his public persona. It is a saga of a government agency gone rogue.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not perfect
When you see pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, it’s striking to see the youthful face and demeanor that accompanies his commanding voice. Just 27 then, he did not yet carry the non-violent movement’s heaviness on his back as he would in the years leading into his death. People forget that he was just 39 when he was murdered, a grown man, of course, but he had not yet been allowed to become his full self or grapple with his character’s flaws. The truth is, he was not perfect.
In recent years, certainly amid the Back Lives Matters Movement’s uprising, America has tried to rewrite Dr. King’s legacy. People in opposition to the protests against police brutality often evoke his name, as though he was not labeled “the most dangerous Negro in America” and then murdered in cold blood, despite his peaceful tactics. For those of us who truly know his history, and who know the history of many great people, his extramarital affairs are not particularly shocking. In her 2014 film Selma celebrates, filmmaker Ava DuVernay imagines Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) hearing an illicit tape of sexual activity and confronting her husband (David Oyelowo) about it in quiet fervor.
J. Edgar Hoover never understood the Black community
It’s clear from MLK/FBI that Hoover assumed King’s dalliances were the key to ending him. During Hoover’s 48-year reign, the FBI, in particular, were attempting to position themselves as the saviors of the American people and the world a large. In addition to the various records, videos, and images of King from the FBI’s files, Pollack interlays FBI propaganda, from Hollywood films like The FBI Story to actual posters from the Bureau.
Though Pollack focuses on parsing out Dr. King’s relentless surveillance and harassment, that’s not what’s most interesting about MLK/FBI. Instead, what stands out most are Sullivan and Hoover’s inability to understand the Black community and why King’s reputation wasn’t easily sullied. Sullivan was so desperate to be rid of Dr. King that cooked up a poorly written letter as “someone culturally trying to pass as Black.” to threaten him. For better or worse, Black people don’t “air their dirty laundry” and historically we insulate our leaders from outside forces.
‘MLK/FBI’ leaves its audience with one question
Moreover, the FBI’s preoccupation with the reverend’s sex life seems more to do with white fears about the Black male sexuality and the power that King wielded globally, over anything else.
As we look ahead into the future and all of the FBI’s files on Dr. King are unveiled in 2027, the question MLK/FBI leaves us with is, if we have not made leeway amid injustices and inequality and are focused instead on the indiscretions of a man who gave up everything so that we could be a better nation— then honestly we should be ashamed.
MLK/FBI was reviewed for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.