By Fatima Husain
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. needs no introduction. The 20th century American revolutionist, revered by many as the Moral leader of the Nation cemented the most important change in American society.
However, the US Government subjected the globally celebrated leader of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement to an oppressively constant campaign of surveillance and harassment.
Sam Pollard’s latest documentary MLK/FBI, based on recently declassified files, critically examines J. Edgar Hoover’s continuous efforts of targeting King as a villain.
Pollard artfully puts into play his proficiency with archival footage - drawing eclectic voices, from newsreels to popular Hollywood secret-agent references. Much of which used over the years to mass condition audiences, and opinions.
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The narrative is crafted very purposefully as visuals of the ‘50s and ’60s are complemented by contemporary voiceovers, presenting varied perspectives. Including King’s associates Andrew Young and Clarence B. Jones.
Just when it starts to take a mono-directional approach, Pollard does not hesitate in showing the dark areas of the story. Mainly the FBI’s intrusive bugs, alleging MLK’s affairs with over 40 women and using this as a means of “humiliating” King. Furthering attempts at dampening his spirits.
The film also highlights a society in which white men were the “natural rulers” and Hoover’s FBI a reiteration of the dominant belief. “Reasonable, sane and patriotic...”
The American popular culture has hailed the Police, FBI and Federal agents as “ultimate saviours and heroes of America…”
King’s evolution from Minister to Civil Rights leader and ultimately Nobel Prize winner unabashedly challenged that rhetoric.
The tapes - currently sealed until 2027 in the US National Archives - contain wiretap recordings from hotel rooms accessed by King.
It is unclear how much we are going to know about any particular incident. Especially FBI’s allegations of King’s sexual life and the rape of a Black female practitioner by his pastor friend.
Hoover’s FBI campaign clearly attempts to discredit King’s likeness to the “Gandhi figure”.
Ironically, the latter is now increasingly controversial in his own country, India.
MLK/FBI comes at an important time when our societies are grappling with protests and pushback by the legacies of both King and Hoover.
*Editor’s Note: MLK/FBI screened in the TIFF DOCS programme at the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.