MLK/FBI Review

Based on fresh research and newly declassified files, filmmaker Sam Pollard examines the US government’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr, led by FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, while wrestling with King’s legacy as a moral leader and adulterer.

by Amon Warmann |
Release Date:

15 Jan 2021

Original Title:


In these divisive times, more and more people have been quoting Dr Martin Luther King Jr. His words have become memes on social media, and key passages from his speeches have adorned many posters at protests. While today he’s seen as an American hero, he was a much more controversial figure when he was alive, viewed by many — especially those within US government institutions — as a dangerous “Black Messiah” who was too revolutionary. This in and of itself is not a revelation, but thanks to some newly declassified FBI files and research from biographer David J. Garrow, Emmy-winning documentarian Sam Pollard finds some fresh ground to explore in this absorbing, elegant documentary.

Through a skilful assembly of documents, propaganda, candid clips and photos, Pollard — a veteran editor of multiple Spike Lee films — paints a picture of how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI mounted an obsessive white supremacist campaign to tarnish the reputation of the civil rights leader. This is aided by voiceovers from an impressive array of interviewees such as Clarence Jones, Anthony Young and former FBI director James Comey. That they are not revealed on camera until the final moments only makes the composition of footage more compelling.

This is no simple hagiography, and the humanising shades of grey on offer here are valuable given how easy it is to deify our heroes.

Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty to be enraged about when it comes to how much King had to endure (the film’s darkest moment recounts how Hoover sent King a blackmail package about his extramarital affairs he hoped would inspire him to commit suicide). In some ways, the fact that King didn’t retaliate and still accomplished everything he did before being assassinated gives us even more appreciation for the icon. But this is no simple hagiography, and the humanising shades of grey on offer here are valuable given how easy it is to deify our heroes.

We’re living in a time where we often find ourselves looking to the past to inform our present, and throughout Pollard underlines the fact that the FBI was not a rogue agency and acted in concert with the United States government. With America’s current leaders using the same language as Hoover did back in the ’50s and ’60s, that much of the doc is classily rendered in widescreen black and white doesn’t make it any less relevant in today’s world.

An eye-opening documentary that poses hard questions and gives no easy answers, MLK/FBI is a worthy addition to the ever-timely media concerning Martin Luther King Jr.
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