‘MLK/FBI’ review: Oscar-tipped civil rights doc plays out like a gritty spy thriller

Sam Pollard's Martin Luther King deep-dive unearths amazing contemporary footage and previously unseen government files

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    There’s a bitter irony to the opening scenes of Sam Pollard’s Martin Luther King Jr. documentary – watching historical footage of crowds marching on Washington to stand up for civil rights just as the capital is now regularly filling up with people who stand for the exact opposite. MLK/FBI might keep its focus squarely on another shameful chapter of America’s political history, but it’s also a fascinating insight into the roots that still feed today’s problems.

    Unearthing amazing contemporary footage, hidden recordings of White House phone calls and transcripts of classified files, Pollard’s film digs deep into the FBI’s secret smear campaign against Dr King and unearths a story that plays out more like a spy thriller than a history lesson.

    MLK/FBI
    Martin Luther King Jr. leads a civil rights march during the 1960s. Credit: Dogwoof

    The FBI hated King. What started off as a resentment of his political beliefs grew into something more personal as bureau chief J Edgar Hoover came to associate the civil rights movement as everything that was wrong with modern America. When secret wire taps hidden in hotel rooms revealed that King had a weakness for women, Hoover shifted the focus of his investigation to try and ruin King’s character instead – becoming an obsession that spanned years.

    As King’s power and influence grew (and as he started becoming the icon that we now remember him for – picking up the Nobel Peace Prize and turning his attention from Black rights to all the other social injustices in America), Hoover’s secret campaign stepped up a gear, involving at least one ugly attempt to force King to kill himself. When King started speaking out against the war in Vietnam, things got even more interesting.

    MLK/FBI
    Director J. Edgar Hoover (centre) and other members of the FBI. Credit: Dogwoof

    Pollard’s remarkable documentary is built entirely out of contemporary footage, with historians, investigators and former FBI spooks picking through previously unseen material to expose just how deeply the systemic racism really ran in the mid ’60s. Talking heads are kept off screen and the crisply cleaned up black and white footage speaks for itself, covering a brief history of the FBI and King before their two paths start to cross.

    The roots of the American government look even more rotten than you might expect (and Hoover’s own obsessions make his “moral” crusade look even more sordid), but the real surprise here is King himself. His strength and power in speech-making is well known, but it’s rare that we get to see such superhuman grace and heroism on talk shows, interviews, letters and phone calls in the face of such constant harassment.

    MLK/FBI
    King was investigated by the FBI during the 1960s. Credit: Dogwoof

    In 2027, the FBI’s seedy motel tapes will be unclassified for the first time, and there’s a real worry that tabloids and right-wingers will seek to use them for exactly what Hoover intended back in the ’60s – smearing King’s name with the details of his less-than perfect private life. With any luck, MLK/FBI will serve as a handy reminder not just of the illegitimacy of the tapes, but also of King’s true legacy as a flawed, bullied human being who somehow still managed to achieve the impossible.

    Details

    • Director: Sam Pollard
    • Release date: January 15 (MLK/FBI is available on demand only)
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