I was in my teenage years when the civil rights movement peaked in the 1960s. I wasn’t involved in politics at the time, but I have an indelible image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man of innate dignity whose approach to protest was emphatically non-violent. He was in sharp contrast to a new generation of black leaders like Malcolm X and Huey Newton.
I also remember my impression of J. Edgar Hoover who is harder to convey to younger people who (understandably) have come to demonize him. My generation was raised to believe that he and his Federal Bureau of Investigation were the ultimate good guys – dedicated, no frills, hardworking men who kept us safe from enemies on all sides.
This is just one of the points highlighted in Sam Pollard’s fascinating documentary. Once, after Hoover beat up King as our nation’s biggest liar, a public opinion poll greatly favored the G-Man over the Baptist minister. So we were brainwashed when it came to J. Edgar, who had been on duty since 1924 … and how few Americans were disaffected with the war in Southeast Asia. King suffered for speaking his conscience.
MLK / FBI is a sober, reflective film that also explores the dark secrets Bureau agents found in their relentless pursuit of filth on the civil rights leader. The recordings they made of his sexual encounters created an undercurrent of gossip … but if they had been published openly, they could have ruined him and destroyed his image forever. (They are still under lock and key until 2027.)
The film and its commentators discuss the delicate question of whether a man of faith and intent can be forgiven for betraying his wife and indulging in sexual escapades that would still be considered taboo. Coretta Scott King never wavered in her loyalty to her husband, at least not in public. We’ll see King continue his crusade in moments when he was under terrible strain. We hear from a handful of scholars, authors, and two confidants of the preacher, Clarence Jones and Andrew Young. Pollard chose to only use the sound of their voices throughout the film so that our eyes are constantly capturing images of King himself.
I don’t know the MLK / FBI is revealing anything new on its subject, but it clears and expands the facets of its story in time. It couldn’t be more relevant than a document of history or a cautionary story about the balance between public and private existence.
Nobody makes an in-depth documentary like this single-handedly, so I’d like to acknowledge writers Benjamin Hedlin and Laura Tomaselli (who also edited the film), archive producers Brian Becker and Sheila Griffin, and composer Gerald Clayton.
MLK / FBI is one of many fine documentaries that vie for attention and awards. It is well worth watching and can now be streamed on a number of platforms.