IFC Films and Field of Vision productions collaborate with director Samuel D. Pollard for the documentary MLK/FBI. Screenwriters Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli adapt the 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis by David J. Garro for the documentary’s narrative structure. At its core, the documentary presents an eye-opening look at Martin Luther King Jr. as he is investigated and harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today as an American hero: a bridge-builder, a shrewd political tactician, and a moral leader. Yet throughout his history-altering political career, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies often treated him as an enemy of the state.
King was under surveillance by the FBI from 1963 until 1968. While its common knowledge that King was an adulterer, the film doesn’t shy away from it, and even highlights some things I didn’t know. For me, MLK/FBI unwittingly shows its audience that King was the first attempted victim of cancel culture. On the one hand, King is just a man, and is flawed. In the film, Beverly Gage acknowledges that “when you construct a man as a great man, there’s nothing almost more satisfying than also seeing him represented as the opposite”.
Viewing the film, in my mind, I thought of how when anyone is successful, others will find joy in seeing them lose. Perhaps Hoover was jealous of King and how he was viewed in a positive light by some white men. Or maybe Hoover was alarmed by King’s closeness to CPA and Jewish lawyer Stanley Levison, who had his share of controversy at the time.
MLK/FBI also showcases figures in King’s life that may please historians. Informants such as Ernest C. Withers and Jim Harrison receive name drops, while King’s speechwriter Clarence Jones has an interview. The sign of a good documentary for me is if the film lights a desire to research more about the subject, and MLK/FBI does just that.
Since the actual tapes are under seal until February 2027, you don’t get a chance to hear what’s on the recordings. I will point out that regardless of what you may think of King and his personal life, the film is worth a look. Plato once said, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” When the credits rolled on MLK/FBI, I can only wonder what positives King would’ve brought about had his life not been cut short.
Final Grade B+
MLK/FBI opens in limited theater today, January 15, and also is available for rent via Video On Demand.