New York FF 2020: MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI. Courtesy of TIFF.

MLK/FBI becomes the first feature-length documentary to really examine the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Freedom of Information Act can be a wonderful tool when used.  In this instance, we’re allowed to see declassified files that show how longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the likes of Dr. King.  These files were declassified in 2017-2018 so it’s a quick production on that part.  That Hoover targeted King certainly isn’t a surprise given how Hoover was likely to have a file on everyone.  The Civil Rights movement brought about the likes of Dr. King and Malcolm X to name a few.  Hoover wasn’t a fan of them and given the political ideals at the time, he also thought communists were everywhere.  This also includes the Civil Rights movement.

Hoover also went after him by any means necessary.  You name it, the FBI did it. Hotel rooms were bugged, phone lines tapped, and they even paid off informants on his activities.  A lot of information about the informants were revealed in the recent round of declassified files.  It does get worse than this.  Although the US is known for its freedom of the press, the FBI was not beneath utilizing journalists to write unfairly about Dr. King.  Do you think they would alert him to death threats?  Guess what?  The answer, unfortunately, is no.  They also weren’t happy when he took home the Nobel Peace Prize either.  Under Hoover and William Sullivan, there were no lengths to which this organization did not go in attempting to take Dr. King down.

One of the things included in the files and the film also discusses are the rape allegations.  Listen, nobody is perfect and everybody has flaws.  When one considers how many files there are, something of this nature couldn’t be ignored.  Some of the people who knew Dr. King also offer their comments on what is alleged to have happened.  Is it going to be enough to change his legacy?  Probably not.  But to not include this part of his life would also be irresponsible filmmaking and for this, the MLK/FBI film team deserves their credit where credit is due.

Dr. King and Director Hoover were certainly of two different minds with distinctly different views of patriotism.  We can look at this film and contrast the events with what we’re seeing today.  I certainly would not put it beneath the Trump administration to pull similar tactics.  It’s a shame but this is where we are today.

Former FBI Director James Comey is one of the key interviews in the film.  Comey’s presence also helps to lend a perspective to the film about how Hoover abused his power.  The interview choices here are brilliant because they either knew Dr. King or they bring about a perspective on Hoover, the informants, etc.  While this is a talking heads documentary, Pollard and the team make some interesting choices.  There are times when we see people talking on camera.  Most of the time, their voices are the only thing we hear over pictures or video.

Comments from retired FBI agent Charles Knox and Ambassador Andrew Young close out the film.  The comments made by Knox suggest that it wouldn’t benefit anyone to release the FBI documents on Dr. King when they are set to be unsealed in 2027.  Knowing what we know about longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, I certainly don’t think we’ll find anything positive.

The film is based on the book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, by David J. Garrow.  Garrow is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Bearing the Cross.

As MLK/FBI shows, the actions taken at the time are a disgrace to the very ideals that the FBI is supposed to represent.

DIRECTOR:  Sam Pollard
SCREENWRITERS: Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli
FEATURING: James Comey, Beverly Gage, David J. Garrow, Clarence Jones, Charles Knox, Donna Murch, Marc Perrusquia, Andrew Young

MLK/FBI holds its U.S. premiere during the 2020 New York Film Festival in the Main Slate program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.