Documentary Review: A Bureau Chief’s obsession, an honored leader’s flaws — “MLK/FBI”

The National Archives has most of the papers and all of the tapes recorded in the FBI’s years of surveilling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. under lock and key, hidden from public view until 2027.

So there’s nothing salacious in the new documentary about the Bureau’s investigation of King, “MLK/FBI.” What this film sets out to document, put into context and explain is something that began life as Bureau File Number 100-106670 and that came to look, with hindsight, like a vendetta against the civil rights leader and Nobel laureate.

Sam Pollard, an African American documentarian with “Eyes on the Prize” and many PBS documentaries on the African American experience on his resume, talks with academics, King confidante Andrew Young, former FBI chief James Comey and author David J. Garrow, whose book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. — From ‘Solo’ to Memphis.”

They map out this decade-long operation, code-named “Solo,” through its secret wiretaps and phone bugs to the nasty public pronouncements of longtime Bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover, who grew up in a white supremacist culture that had a lot to do with his growing obsession with King.

But it all began with “communism.”

As King’s many speeches and TV interviews, along with archival coverage of civil rights marches of the era and snippets of the many FBI-fluffing TV shows and movies popular back then play out, Pollard’s unseen (until the closing credits) interview subjects lay out how King’s connection with a Jewish New York lawyer, businessman and advisor in the mid-1950s piqued the Bureau’s interest and forever-marked the civil rights leader as a communist pawn in the eyes of the conservative white men who ran the FBI.

To Hoover and his domestic intelligence chief, William Sullivan, King’s association with longtime communist activist Stanley Levison was the only excuse they needed to go after “the most dangerous Negro in America.”

Young, who went on to become mayor of Atlanta, a Congressman and US Ambassador to the UN, recalls King’s efforts to recruit and drill into people in “the movement” folks who “come off as sane and patriotic,” which it turns out meant nothing to the FBI. 

King, told by the Kennedys to distance himself from Levison, claimed he did just that, but “MLK/FBI” suggests that they never totally ended their association.

We hear President Lyndon Johnson fretting over the phone about what he was being told about King by Hoover, wondering to an unnamed aide if there wasn’t somebody who could warn King to curb his womanizing. But those close to King who knew they’d been wiretapped tried to do just that, and King refused to believe them.

And we see, in interviews and speeches, just what about King drove Hoover so crazy. The singularly eloquent King turned every public Hoover attack around on the Bureau chief whose agency was slow-footed in tracking down racist murderers, Birmingham church bombers and the like.

The suggestion that the Bureau should have seen King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, coming explains why some still question whether the Bureau was somehow involved in the Lorraine Motel murder.

However, the film doesn’t overreach in setting the FBI director up as the villain, with authors like Beverly Gage and Donna Murch noting that Hoover wasn’t a one-man operation or disconnected from the culture.

King’s fears, once the FBI made its most direct threat at “exposing” him, that some news organization would publish evidence of his infidelities, isn’t explored at length. Did some know and yet question the motives of the government for trying to smear him? “Witnessed” and “laughed at” a rape? That allegation, true or fabricated, would have had dire consequences.

King dominates the conversation in the film as he did in life, laying out the depth of the social ills he attacked, the ingrained violence against Black people in American culture at large, telling interviewers “The only way they can grapple with their prejudices is to admit that that they have them.”

But will his status as “the moral leader” of the America of his day change in 2027? That question is bandied about but left hanging by “MLK/FBI.” We’ll have to wait until the last of the documents and the tapes come out, and for a future documentary that includes them, to know the answer. 

For now, we have this sturdy PBS-friendly documentary that summarizes the conflict without scandalizing the historical icon Hoover so fervently wanted to take down.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: The voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Beverly Gage, Donna Murch, James Comey, many others

Credits: Directed by Sam Pollard, script by Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:44

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