‘MLK/FBI’ Review (New York Film Festival Review)

There are very few documentary styles that drive me up the wall more than the “tell things we already know as if it’s a revelatory discovery” genre. A documentary is a look inside a subject where most audiences lack insight, whether historically, politically, or societally. Even if audiences have a general sense of the through-line (and I’ll admit that as a history buff, I tend to be difficult to surprise), there should still be some sort of hook, angle, or commentary that most of society couldn’t figure out on their own. It’s for these reasons I found Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI to be a disappointment. Not only does it fail to provide any new information on the smear campaign on Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. by Great American Villain J. Edgar Hoover, but it does so by copying the legwork of better documentaries in the genre, like Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

From the minute Martin Luther King, Jr. began to develop a mass following, he had a target on his back. While Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were indifferent to him as a whole, and supportive of him on certain causes, he made a powerful enemy in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. With the power of the world’s greatest Intelligence force at his disposal, the ability to manipulate most leaders to his will, and a media force willing to bend to his faux image of the Great American Man, Hoover began spying on King, engaging in Zersetzung-esque psychological torture, and turning white America against him, in ways that may ultimately have resulted in the preacher’s death.

Some of the best work this documentary does is the way it explores Martin Luther King’s character – in his politics, in his prescience, and in his personal failings. It’s easy to embrace the sanitized image of the late Civil Rights leader that teachers and Boomers have provided for us over the years – where King gave warm, affirming speeches about togetherness and solved racism with a few simple marches, and one lone racist murdered him sparking a nation of mourning. MLK/FBI uses King’s real speeches and history to explore a far more complex, honest view of the figure than people may be comfortable with. Specifically, the film explores the more controversial views that not only drove the young leader, but showed up repeatedly in his speeches. For example, one of the film’s first major bombshells is not just King’s supposed ties to socialist movements (not really a shock to anyone who’s researched the leader), but the revelation that King’s mentor, Sam Levison, actually was a devout Communist, and a major reason that Hoover viewed Black people and Communists as synonymous.

From there, the film manages to paint a picture not of King as a peaceful moderate, but as a strategic leader of the 60s New Left movement, and a forerunner for prominent activists of today. This is perhaps the film’s most salient point, breaking down less-repeated King quotes, including “It’s amazing that more African-Americans haven’t turned to Communism, in spite of his discrimination,” or his open disdain for the Vietnam War based on reasons both personal (his nonviolent Christian beliefs) and political (the money for the war siphoned away support for the War on Poverty and Civil Rights). In fact, despite current disdain for identity politics and current leaders in the Left, it’s impossible to listen to King’s quotes and not draw a direct parallel to today. King openly uses the phrase “white privilege” to condemn all of white America as ignorant to their own racism. In a direct parallel to 2020, King mocks the “lift themselves up by their bootstraps” expression in regards to welfare programs with the clever retort “a Black man can lift himself up by his bootstraps, but he must have the boots FIRST!” And in a recording of King’s final speech, the film chooses not to focus on the “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” portion, but instead draws attention to King’s scathing rebuke “At least Russia and China don’t pretend to offer these rights to their citizens.” 

The film also manages to explore King’s shortcomings as a further means of exploring the man we never knew. In fact, it’s handling of King’s rougher edges and the deconstruction of a saint-like “hero” is a far more interesting angle than Pollard’s actual message. Americans like to focus on the glory and heroism of their ancestors, and often enjoys glossing over their flaws, politically and personally. This dampens the import of not only the personal sacrifices of radical change, but also paints a picture of flawless humans that no one could dream of living up to. King, like so many in history, was a complex figure, and MLK/FBI sets out to explore that complexity. For example, the film uses actual footage and anecdotes to deconstruct the myth of the jovial, famous meeting between King and Kennedy with the revelation that Kennedy used that meeting to convince the Reverend to denounce and sever ties with his close friend Levison – a deal that King reluctantly made.

It’s a Devil’s Bargain, admittedly, and paints King as someone who would willingly cut out his closest friends, yet also makes it clear that sometimes this is the tragic cost of progress. Less noble is deep dive into King’s infidelity, which the film lays out on full display, lest there be any doubt about it. Like most American politicians in history, King had copious affairs – sometimes arranged by the FBI. It’s an image that we like to avoid when imagining our heroes, and yet the film makes it clear we must accept the good with the bad. By revealing these oft-hidden views and flaws, the film manages to help explain King’s controversial nature to a generation that otherwise might not have understood the Establishment’s animosity.

Of course, MLK/FBI isn’t just about King as a human being. It is, more specifically, about America’s horrific treatment of King during his life, spurred by the great monster in American history, and how modern day Americans don’t like to admit any of these facts. So many Boomers and schoolteachers paint a picture of King being beloved all over America, and only having issues with a few racists in the South. Pollard dismisses this myth instantaneously with a survey from 1963 counting only 15% of white people in all of America siding with King, while most Americans polled dubbed him a violent monster. This is one of the film’s most intriguing premises, as it explores how Hoover, with his unparalleled power as FBI Director, used exaggerated and fictionalized portrayals of FBI greatness to not create a false notion of their own heroism, but to demonize those they despised. And considering Hoover dubbed King “America’s Most Dangerous Negro,” it’s not hard to imagine who his fake news campaign targeted.

It’s hard not to think of our modern landscape, especially after the events of January 6th, as politicians host fake programs where they accept Hoover’s claims that “Of course I’m not wiretapping. That would be illegal!” at face value. Perhaps more fascinating are the actual 60s interviews Pollard inserts into the film, involving white people protesting King with claims that “He’s not human; he thinks he’s so much smarter than all of us; his actions are responsible for all this rioting going on!” In one particularly prescient moment, a white woman who seems like she’d get along with those fine folk from the Capitol last week accuses King of being “trained at a Communist school,” based on a blurry photo she saw in a White Supremacist leaflet. When asked if that was her only proof to the accusation, she angrily retorts “It’s the only proof I need.” The film draws a direct line from the propaganda films Hoover created to the crowds of King-hating racists, both overt and subliminal, and it’s scary stuff that we need to see.

However, despite these flashes of brilliance, there exists a layer of obviousness that permeates through the entire production. Outside of the few choice tidbits mentioned above, MLK/FBI repeatedly fails to provide new evidence or information in pursuit of its goal. Pollard seems to operate under the notion that “The FBI did shady things to Martin Luther King” is a groundbreaking discovery, as if this well-known fact were a major discovery. It’d be one thing if the film’s thesis was “This is the public knowledge we don’t like to talk about” – that would be an interesting conclusion. But instead, we are repeatedly subjected to common knowledge. The idea that Hoover may actually have been a bad dude? Done. The forged letter trying to convince King to kill himself? That’s mentioned as if it’s a bombshell and not something shared by your liberal cousin every Martin Luther King Day. The theory embraced by Coretta Scott King that the FBI was involved in the assassination? Here, but completely hedged and neutered so it lacks any interest – basically the conclusion they come to is the FBI may not have been involved, but there’s no way they wouldn’t have known in advance. Oh, and they throw in a “good for you” to Hoover to compliment him for investigating. F*ck that. Even the things they do mention are often glossed over, despite featuring some of the film’s most salient points. The aforementioned use of the FBI propaganda films is a fascinating subject, yet the film treats it as a throwaway detail, as opposed to the story itself. Pollard treats every detail he reveals as if it’s the tape at the end of The Thin Blue Line, when he’s really just restating America’s Greatest Hits.

This is a real shame, because some of that time dedicated to obvious history could have been spent fleshing out the film’s weaker theses. One of the worst aspects of MLK/FBI is the way it throws out a series of major bombshell accusations, and then just treats them as fact without proving them. Listen, no one hates J. Edgar Hoover more than me – every terrible event of the 20th Century can be traced back to his grubby little hands. But while I know Hoover is a scumbag, and can believe he is radically racist, the filmmaker still has to prove the baseline of the claim. You can’t just say “Hoover believed in a white supremacist hierarchy” and then not back it up with any sort of data. The film loves to drop little hints and ideas that it never fully explores, outside of the occasional quote like “Communists are a bigger threat than Nazis ever were,” or Hoover’s obsession with recruiting conservative white frat bros to stock the FBI’s halls. But if you’re going to make your film’s grand thesis that “J. Edgar Hoover hated Martin Luther King because he could have sex with anyone he wanted while Hoover had to remain in the closet,” then you’re going to have to put in the legwork. Other claims do have a few minutes dedicated to the evidence, like Hoover’s fear of Black Man As Rapist or a general disdain for all Black-led movements (i.e. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, SNCC, SCLC, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, etc.). But as a whole, MLK/FBI is a collection of unproven arguments stitched together with obvious fact and masqueraded as revelatory information.

As a filmmaker, Pollard enjoys flashes of brilliance broken up by ill-fitting narrative choices. Indeed, watching the film’s first five minutes toys with the promise of a far-more brilliant film than the final product, opening with the traditional myth painted by white America’s understanding of the “I Have A Dream” speech. Immediately after this opening, Pollard shows viewers that there will be no talking head interviews, instead utilizing narrators and archival footage as a means of commentary, with quotations coming from such varied sources as Andrew Young, Ronald Reagan, and beyond. It’s a weirdly old-school stylistic choice, and at times almost resembles a 60s-era documentary in its creation. I also enjoy the fact that it makes its more dramatic revelations (what few there are) evidentially sound by showing how the film’s findings come from the Freedom of Information Act. But it’s in moments like these that the film also reveals its biggest cinematic setback: the fact it clearly is copping from better documentaries on the subject.

In fact, its comparisons to 13th border on plagiarism – when discussing white America’s view of the Black Man As Rapist, it utilizes the exact same clip from The Birth of a Nation, with almost the exact same script as DuVernay’s 2016 classic. It’s too glaring a comparison to pass up. It’s also absurd in a film about FBI overreach that COINTELPRO and its use of Black informants in Martin’s ranks wouldn’t even be mentioned until the last twenty minutes of an almost two-hour runtime. And while I get that he’s the only FBI Director who’d be willing to appear in a documentary of this sort, I still can’t get over my anger that James Comey, the man who somehow dropped the ball three or four times from October 2016 through May 2017, and infamously allowed white supremacists to infiltrate local police forces, makes an appearance to hang his head and say that he’s “read the FBI file on King. Worst part of American history.” Thanks a lot, douchebag, I really care what you have to say.

At one point in MLK/FBI, Andrew Young comments “It’s the divide between who we are, who we say we are, and who we want to be.” It’s in this moment that the film’s issues become clear. Young’s statement should serve as the thesis statement of the film. Instead, Pollard pivots to the notion that “This is what the FBI does, and America wanted it” – a statement that is somehow inexplicably obtusely obvious and yet completely unfounded in the film’s text. I’m sure a major portion of Pollard’s thinking has to do with the modern era, and the way propaganda and conversations from certain political leaders surrounding Black Lives Matter and Black leaders seems recycled from Hoover’s 60s playbook. Yet allusions and comparisons alone aren’t enough to justify a documentary. There needs to be substance and insight. And if you don’t have the evidence or the drive to properly delve into a topic, it’s best to reevaluate your thesis, as opposed to beating around the bush and copying your contemporary’s homework.

C+

MLK/FBI is now available to rent on most streaming platforms

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