The government-sanctioned harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. provides the chilling spine of “MLK/FBI,” a documentary timed to the annual holiday for the civil rights icon. Director Sam Pollard’s film also raises an interesting question – namely, what historians and journalists owe King’s legacy in terms of releasing material amassed specifically in an effort to sully his name.
Former FBI director James Comey describes J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with King, and his unsettling campaign to discredit him, as “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.” Determined to uncover communist influence within the civil-rights movement, FBI surveillance revealed a more salacious fact – that King was unfaithful to his wife, Coretta Scott King, a disclosure that Hoover sought to use as leverage against him.
Some additional information about the FBI spying on King came out in a document released in 2017. The ugly nature of that hounding included letters threatening exposure and urging him to commit suicide. As one historian notes, Hoover’s broader goal was to hobble the movement that King led by “destroying its figurehead,” a mission that assumed greater urgency in Hoover’s eyes after King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pollard explores the complicated relationship between King and President Lyndon Johnson, who were allies in championing civil rights before Johnson soured on King when he took a principled stand against the Vietnam War.
Former King aide and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young recalls that the movement’s leadership “assumed the rooms were bugged,” but they couldn’t have anticipated the extent to which the FBI employed paid informants in order to spy on them.
Hoover’s vendetta – stemming from his belief that King was “morally unfit,” says historian David Garrow – offers a troubling portrait of government overreach and wiretapping. Yet the intellectual exercise buried within the film lies in the fact the intelligence gathered is scheduled to become unsealed in 2027, raising issues of how to handle material that is historically significant – in terms of understanding the full extent of the FBI’s transgressions – and horribly intrusive to King’s memory.
The film is fleshed out with fascinating footage of King in various settings, including appearances on talk shows and receiving his Nobel award. The director juxtaposes that with a study of Hoover and the FBI culture he established, while touching lightly on his biography.
“MLK/FBI” not only offers a compelling portrait of what was, but beyond just looking back, sets up a debate about what will be. In the process, the documentary sheds light on a dark part of US history while leaving viewers to contemplate just how dark its more sordid corners should remain.
“MLK/FBI” premieres in select theaters and on demand on Jan. 15.