The terror that underlies white supremacy in America is the focus of the not-at-all subtle side-eye oozing from veteran documentarian Sam Pollard in his MLK/FBI. Beautiful in its style, and raging — and enraging — in its substance, this look at “the darkest part of the [Federal] Bureau [of Investigation]’s history” skewers the FBI’s intensive surveillance of civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr from multiple angles.
A glorious compilation of tons of fascinating vintage footage — none of which I can recalling seeing before anywhere else — animates the narration provided by an array of deeply knowledgeable off-screen experts (no talking heads here!) as they discuss newly declassified documents detailing how the US federal government worked to “humiliate” King by digging up as much dirt as possible on him, in order to discredit his public work. This was deemed necessary because King, “the most dangerous Negro in America,” was having some success at advancing civil rights for Black people. And then he threatened the military-industry complex by agitating against the war in Vietnam. The absolute gall of him!
Unspoken here is the hypocrisy of how protected President John F Kennedy, King’s contemporary, was with regards to his sexual infidelity while the FBI was going all out to shame King for his. (Me: “Argh, why can’t men keep it in their pants?” Also me: “Whether he cheated on his wife has nothing to do with whether Black people should be treated as human.” Also also me: “Like, how did he have time for affairs?”) Unspoken here is how FBI director J Edgar Hoover — whose own sexuality seems to have been, at least, repressed — may have had his own sense of white superiority complicated by his overt prudishness–slash–salacious interest in the sex lives of celebrities. The unspokenness of these things is not a problem with Pollard’s film: it’s an indication of the profound fucked-up-ness of American culture, one that continues to this day.
Films like MLK/FBI aren’t about giving you the full historical context — though of course this one will provide a broader perspective on King’s targeting by the FBI than we’ve had before — but giving you pause to examine your own prejudices and preconceptions. And I’m not even talking about your attitudes on race! I’m talking about the pop-culture copaganda that elevated the FBI in the minds of the public to can-do-no-wrong status, which gets a solid examination here. I’m talking about the right-wing conflation of racial equality with “communism,” and how as soon as you start to say to yourself, “Hey, wasn’t equality allegedly part of the foundation of America?” is when you start to grasp how, in fact, it really wasn’t. I’m talking about recognizing, perhaps for the first time, how much effort and money and resources have been “mobilized against suppressing dissent in the US,” as historian Donna Murch notes here.
The near-term roots of the absolute nightmare of America that has come to a head in the past four years are to be found in MLK/FBI. Understanding those roots is a vital requirement of fixing the cancer of white supremacy. Heal America’s founding rancor of bigotry and oppression, and expanding its notion of freedom, offered originally to a jealous few, can begin only when we know how foully and powerfully it is entrenched. This is not a pleasant film, but it is an essential one.