A still of Martin Luther King Jr. from MLK/FBI.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of American history already know most of the story: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 to 1972, viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as a threat to law and order, or maybe just his own stranglehold on the American justice system. The bureau kept a detailed file on the civil rights leader, filled with salacious details gleaned from surveillance of his private life. Then they used it: They sent a recording of him and his alleged mistress to King’s wife, followed by a letter to King himself, encouraging him to commit suicide to prevent these personal secrets from ever reaching the public. Understandably, there are those who think the FBI had something to do with his assassination.

MLK/FBI, a documentary by Sam Pollard, offers no revelatory additions to this story, but fills in some meaningful shading that makes the picture come to life. Blending archival footage of King and Hoover with interviews with scholars, historians, and a few figures who were in King’s orbit at the time, the film tracks the FBI’s public and private campaigns against the man Hoover famously called “the most dangerous Negro of the future.” Pollard, who is best known for editing many of Spike Lee’s films in the 1990s, avoids talking heads and keeps the faces of King and Hoover front and center, as his experts elucidate their points in voice-over.

It’s a nice change of pace from historical documentaries that are overly reliant on expert interviews, but the technique also serves a purpose. Simply looking at these two figures for so long helps to reorient the viewer to the time when these events occurred, which allows the film’s thesis to fully bloom: MLK/FBI seeks to remind us that King was something close to a pariah in his time, not the universally respected figure he is today, and that the FBI was not a rogue agency acting against the wishes of the American people.  “A lot of people understood what the FBI was up to,” says one expert, “and in fact, they supported it.” It gives the battle between King and Hoover the stakes that history books rarely do. 

 MLK/FBI builds in the viewer the feeling that if a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. were to show up in 2020 (or if, say, another Black liberation movement formed in the wake of repeated shootings of unarmed Black citizens by the state), they would still be considered a threat by the media establishment, the government, and half the population. Consider the film’s man-on-the-street interviews, in which one man says King is the worst person in America, and another, who, encouraged by the specifics of the FBI’s public campaign against King, proudly asserts that King was “without a doubt” trained by Communists. She even has a newspaper article to back up her wildly false claim. It all sounds so
tragically familiar.

That’s a justification for MLK/FBI to exist, and also a point against it. Familiarity is not necessarily the stuff of great cinema, and there are times when it feels as if Pollard is simply running through facts that should already be known to any literate American. Then again, illuminating what interviewee and former FBI director James Comey describes as “the darkest part of the bureau’s history” is probably worth doing, especially at a time when agreeing on a common story is one of our nation’s biggest challenges. Strong with purpose, MLK/FBI demythologizes the past and sets the record straight on our present.

MLK/FBI is available to stream on demand beginning Jan. 15.