Sam Pollard’s excellent documentary, MLK/FBI,”principally covers the last five years of Martin Luther King’s life. None of its major points is really new: he worked under tremendous pressure, he was hounded by the FBI, he was profligate. What this film does reveal is how those details defined him.
The film manifests King’s mantra: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” MLK/FBI shows King standing up to harassment and surveillance meant to derail — not just him and his sisters and brothers in the Civil Rights movement, but the entire agenda for equality of blacks with whites.
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Herbert Hoover, hated King, hated that a young black man had the influence to question the long dominance of white men in America. So from 1955 on, Hoover, tapped King’s telephones, spread rumors, and sicced his men, including William Sullivan, on King. Horrifyingly, Sullivan is heard on newly declassified tapes advising King to kill himself.
One of the FBI’s audio tapes of King’s philandering was played into Coretta Scott King’s ear. These so-called “sex” tapes will not be released until 2027, so Pollard asks often if these revelations will affect King’s deified reputation.
Pollard brought to this film his experience and excellence directing documentaries of Black history, such as Eyes on the Prize II and When the Levees Broke. Pollard wrote the film with Benjamin Hedin, a blues historian. The black man and the white man enfolded interviews with members of the movement, such as Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, and with scholars, such as historian Beverly Gage. Interviewees are heard throughout in voice-over, but captured on film only at the end, which is mystifying technique.
MLK/FBI reveals much about the way the United States government furthered fear about Black citizens. The documentary also underscores the fortitude of a complex man, assassinated at 39 in Memphis, Tenn., 1968.