We are reminded in “MLK/FBI,” Sam Pollard’s gripping new documentary (in theaters and available as video on demand Friday as video on demand), that for a time many Americans thought of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the good guy and saw Martin Luther King Jr. as the villain.
Of course, Hoover, marshaling all the powers of his position and a lot of powers beyond it, had a lot to do with that. Which is also a reminder that assumed privilege has been around forever – that for so many people then and now the “American way” translates to “the white American male way” and those white American men will do anything to preserve it.
Pollard, working with a wealth of archival footage, surveillance reports, FBI files and interviews, lays out plainly the war Hoover and the FBI waged against King, as his influence as a leader of the civil right movement grew. And war isn’t an exaggeration.
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King at this point is such an icon that it’s hard to think of him as anything but. We know the famous lines from the famous speeches. Here we see some of that, too, but we also see him as a person – a flawed person, no question, with Hoover working tirelessly to make those flaws public.
If the film did nothing more than humanize King, as in an interview with Merv Griffin where he lightens up a bit, it would be interesting. In fact, “MLK/FBI” could use more of that. But that’s not what Pollard is after; clips like that are tangential to its mission.
Instead he shows the lengths to which Hoover, his aide William Sullivan and the bureau went to try to turn public sentiment against King. This included not just your garden-variety dirty tricks, but things like placing recording devices in hotel rooms where King had affairs. At one point, they sent recordings to King’s home – and his wife opened them and listened.
The tapes were accompanied by a ham-handed letter encouraging King to kill himself.
That King had extramarital relationships isn’t anything new. The extent to which Hoover went to try to discredit him with knowledge of them, however, is striking – as is Hoover’s frustration when his smear campaign didn’t gain much traction.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Hoover sent the recordings to ministers and to the media. Believing King’s personal indiscretions weren’t news, they didn’t bite. Imagine that kind of restraint today. You can’t.
Pollard also dives into the evolution of the FBI under Hoover, who led it for 48 years and built it in his image.
Hoover was a master at using public relations and media to sell that image. Pollard incorporates footage from shows like “The FBI” and several films, all of which reinforce the idea of the straight white man fighting the good fight for his country.
However it played then, it plays badly now. As, of course, do Hoover’s tactics, which later FBI director James Comey says turned his stomach.
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Hoover, of course, also worked closely with several presidents and attorneys general. Robert Kennedy approved wiretaps on King’s phones. Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through a lot of civil rights legislation and worked closely with King at times, changed his mind once King renounced the Vietnam War.
That decision, ironically, did what Hoover’s dirty tricks could not and led to some of King’s former supporters breaking with him. Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but when we hear about the pressure King was under, exacerbated by the campaign against him, the familiar photos make him look sadder, more worn, seen in this light.
Ah, but when he speaks. It’s not just the famous speeches, but things like a press conference after he won the Nobel Peace Prize (which, naturally, infuriated Hoover), or when he’s talking to a reporter who is setting up a TV segment. And especially when a reporter keeps pestering him about the violence that breaks out at peaceful rallies. She won’t let it go, and there’s an ugly, condescending tone in her voice.
King’s tone is calm and measured, and far more effective. We have to look at who is committing the violence at those rallies, he said.
Pollard makes an interesting cinematic decision to not show his talking-head experts and witnesses until the end of the film. They wonder what will be in the release of more FBI files on King when they’re unsealed in 2027. Most agree that they won’t tarnish King’s legacy, any more than Hoover’s efforts already have.
That’s what “MLK/FBI” drives home: The more we see King as a human and not an icon, the greater his accomplishments become.
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