This Friday, January 15, on the 92nd anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, a new documentary about the iconic civil rights leader will hit select theaters and video-on-demand. MLK/FBI is a bracing reminder that King’s acceptance as a mainstream political figure did not come during his life. While modern political pundits try to frame his nonviolent protests as more “proper” than the recent uprisings seen in response to racial violence and inequality, this film reminds us that King was widely hated in his time and considered a threat to national security.
MLK/FBI dips somewhat into King’s history with the civil rights movement in the 1950s, but the film mostly focuses on the time between the 1963 March on Washington — where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech — and King’s assassination in 1968. It was during this era that J. Edgar Hoover realized King’s influence had grown to a national — even international — scale. And Hoover didn’t like it one bit. He put all the muscle of the FBI into digging up dirt on King to discredit him and derail his work.
The FBI’s surveillance of King initially focused on his relationship with Stanley Levison, who was a supporter of the American Communist party in the ’50s. Levison was a consultant and a friend to King, and though publicly King claimed to have broken off contact with Levison, the FBI’s wire taps discovered this was not the case.
With this discovery as ammunition, Hoover got the okay from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to expand the surveillance to include microphones placed in King’s hotel rooms when he traveled. During the surveillance, it was discovered that King would bring women to his room. The FBI reports describe incidents of orgies and violence, although the historians interviewed for this film share suspicions that some of these accounts are exaggerated and dotted with inconsistencies.
In theory, all will be revealed in 2027, when the FBI’s tapes will be made public. Director Sam Pollard asks his interview subjects what this might mean for the legacy of King and whether these invasions of privacy belong in the historical record. The subjects seem ambivalent about what their moral duty is in this situation, but also seem to agree that having a deeper understanding of a person and their flaws often does less harm to their public image than people like Hoover would hope.
This sequence is the only one in the film where talking heads are seen. Throughout the rest of the film, Pollard and his editor Laura Tomaselli rely entirely on archival footage and photographs for the visuals while the interview material is heard. Pollard — whose documentary career as director, producer, and editor spans over 30 years and includes seminal works like Eyes on the Prize and 4 Little Girls — does not retread overly familiar clips from this era. Instead, we are shown a combination of news footage, propaganda films, and even feature films and TV.
Pollard uses these clips to illustrate how the American people were indoctrinated by pop culture to believe in the goodness of the FBI. Hoover’s PR savvy was part of his genius, and it helps explain why the majority of Americans were on his side when he publicly branded King as an untrustworthy liar.
Prior to his assassination, King was becoming more of a political outsider by following his conscience. King initially deferred to President Johnson after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, but eventually enough was enough and he came out staunchly against the Vietnam War. He spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign to get the government to take the money it was investing in war and put it into bringing people out of poverty instead.
Pollard’s film shows how far the nation has come in terms of attitudes and values — and, sadly, it shows how little has changed too. Without drawing explicit parallels, MLK/FBI‘s descriptions of the turmoil and harassment endured by King and the others in the protest movement can’t help but echo events we’re seeing documented and recounted on the news and in social media today.
I’m sure many modern viewers think they know the story of Martin Luther King. But, like most great histories, MLK/FBI illuminates and examines moments from the past in a way that feels startlingly fresh and relevant. This is a must-see.
MLK/FBI opens in select theaters and is available through video on demand starting Friday, January 15.
More Pop Culture Beast – Documentaries:
*Remembering Timothy Leary in My Psychedelic Love Story
*Belushi seeks to find the man behind the comedy
*City So Real is a rich, kaleidoscopic portrait of Chicago
*Dick Johnson Is Dead is a poignant and darkly funny look at grief
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.