MLK/FBI (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A close look into the FBI surveillance on MLK

Documentary film “MLK/FBI” is often compelling in its calm but sobering presentation of what happened between one great American figure and a very powerful government agency quite willing to suppress him by any means necessary. While it will not probably surprise you much if you are familiar with its main subjects, the documentary did a fine job of illuminating not only his complex human sides but also one of the most shameful moments in the history of that government agency, and you may be more curious about what may be revealed via the declassification of certain old classified government documents in 2027.

At the beginning, the documentary follows how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to a prominent social position around the late 1950s. After the considerable success of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, he drew more public attention to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and then there came a historical moment as he delivered that famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28th, 1963. As a result, the Civil Rights Movement came to gain much more momentum, but it also came to draw a lot more attention from the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover, who had virtually ruled over the agency since he founded it in 1924.

To Hoover, Dr. King was a subversive who could be a big menace to the US government as well as the status quo of the American society, and he and his FBI guys tried to dig up anything suspicious about Dr. King. For example, Dr. King happened to be closely associated with a civil rights attorney named Stanley Levinson, and the FBI paid lots of attention to whatever was going between Dr. King and Levinson mainly because Levinson had a very unpleasant past with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) in the 1950s for his old association with communists.

After Hoover reported that to President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy, who was the US Attorney General at that time, President Kennedy warned Dr. King about that in private, but Dr. King ignored his warning. That eventually led to the permission from Robert F. Kennedy on the following surveillance on Dr. King, and Hoover and the FBI were certainly eager to dig up more information on whatever Dr. King was doing behind his back.

To their disappointment, the FBI could not find any incriminating evidence to show Dr. King being influenced by Levinson’s left-wing political view, but they found something else to be used against Dr. King. As some of you already know, Dr. King was not so staunchly monogamous in his private life, and it did not take much time for the FBI to gather lots of salacious pieces of information from Dr. King and a number of women who happened to have some intimate private time with him.

Hoover and the FBI attempted to use this undeniable fact to expose Dr. King as a big hypocrite, but, to their bafflement, they failed every time. They actually sent their dirty information to a number of newspaper reporters and church pastors, but that did not lead to any scandal at all, and the public image of Dr. King was heightened further in the meantime when it was announced that he was chosen as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Not long after Hoover called Dr. King a liar in public, they had a private meeting at Hoover’s office, and, regardless of whatever happened between them at that time, Hoover and the FBI went further for bringing down Dr. King to the bottom. Besides sending Dr. King’s wife a tape recording of one of King’s recent extramarital affairs, they also sent vicious anonymous blackmail letters intended to drive him to suicide, and several interviewees in the documentary tell us how much Dr. King emotionally struggled behind his back during that time.

At least, Dr. King was supported by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and their joint efforts led to several monumental political successes including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but there was one problem: the Vietnam War. Although he was mostly silent on this issue at first because of having President Johnson as one of his main political allies, Dr. King eventually decided to become quite outspoken about his negative opinion on the Vietnam War, and that certainly resulted in a big conflict between him and President Johnson.

While knowing well that the FBI was watching on him more than ever as a result, Dr. King did not hesitate to go further, but then, unfortunately, he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Regardless of how much they actually knew about what would happen on that tragic day, Hoover immediately ordered a quick and intensive investigation on this incident because, well, he did not want any more trouble. Nevertheless, as recently depicted in Oscar-winning film “Judas and Black Messiah” (2021), he and the FBI continued to suppress any possibility of another “Black Messiah” after Dr. King during next several years.

In conclusion, “MLK/FBI” is a splendid documentary which shows and tells us a lot about some inconvenient facts about both Dr. King and the FBI, and I appreciate how director Sam Pollard, who has been mainly known for his editing works in Spike Lee’s several films including “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), deftly juxtaposes various archival footage clips with his several interview recordings. In short, this is another interesting documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950-60s, and it will certainly make you reflect more on its main subjects after it is over.

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