REVIEW: MLK/FBI (TIFF 2020)
White saviourism and White racism are two sides of the same coin. MLK/FBI is a rare Civil Rights Movement documentary that folds out this typically ignored truth and highlights the governmental harassment and persistence in its antagonism against Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement for Black civil rights. This film utilises publicly available documents and documentation from this era to reveal the ways that the FBI, namely J. Edgar Hoover as the director of the Bureau at the time, was a core functioning presence in the denigration of MLK Jr. and furthering the negative public perception of Black people fighting for their deserved rights.
Directed by Emmy winner and nominee Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI consists mainly of clips and videos of the height of King’s leadership, as well as showing the detailed and hostile letters sent between officials of the FBI. It maintains a sense of accuracy; in that it does not interpolate present-day face on shots of the experts that the film has narrating the film. Instead, opting to leave their voices as a guided tour amongst the harrowing, tension-filled score, to the history of MLK Jr., and his policies and political transformation over time. Authors and historians such as Donna Murch, David Garrow, personal counsel and friends to MLK Jr., Andrew Young, Clarence Jones, and even former FBI official James Comey, served as the backdrop to the clips of Black unity, violence and cruelty demonstrated. This is the film’s major strength.
One of its major messages is that in MLK Jr’s death, career controversy, and the dehumanization of other well-known Black activists of the time, there was a complicity of the American government and other powerful people in their downfalls. In utilizing their narratives in this sense, allowing them to have the present-day voice in reflecting on his untimely death and hostility from America, it forces the audience to reflect on their own idolatry placed onto Black activists. It forces us to consider the harm of that fame in the name of asking for simple rights, which makes these activists increasingly vulnerable to violence and critique.
On top of this, it points out the ways that American society persists the way it does in its violence towards Black people, is rooted in an anti-Blackness directly related to the over-sexualization of Black anger and existence. There is a distinct present-day application that this film can take as we enter a new period of Black people fighting for basic rights of humanhood, instead of being depicted as unhuman, overly-aggressive subjects, or what Dr King called the “thingification of the Negro.” Running concurrently with anti-communism, the Civil Rights Movement was a reason to paint Black America as uniformly non-autonomous tools for radical notions, rather as a people with backs broken by the continuing brutality of White supremacy and righteously engaging with radical politics of unity and community in order to survive.
What the film lacks is simply not its fault. It spends a large portion discussing recordings and documentation from the FBI’s bugged mics at the time used to surveil MLK Jr. and his supposed adultery. But, in fact these recordings are not available to the public until 2027. This film is most painful when it places the young MLK Jr., and his docile, hopeful and at times fearful, face right in the center of the screen, necessitating us to grapple with the question of whether his adultery taints his image, or whether that very thought is what the FBI wanted in turning the people against their ‘saviour.’
From finding his way as a leader in fighting for equal rights that a select few of White politicians could bear to accept under their ideals of respectability politics, and then the more controversial figure who lost major support in MLK Jr has left two images permeated in the American psyche. It’s that of the non-violent, neutral Black leader that white Americans use to shame riots in the face of racism, and the opposite, in that he was an instigator and danger to the crucial whiteness of the foundations of America. In the final act of MLK/FBI, the black and white imagery is washed in full color and the facelessness of the narrators is unveiled. It twists the reality we thought we knew of MLK Jr. as an iconized figure on its head in a time when it is most important to confront these ideas.