Few Americans are more admired than slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet at the same time, he was a man whose personal life was, shall we say, complicated, and whose activities drew the attention — warranted or unwarranted — of the FBI for a good portion of his life.
All of that is examined in the new documentary MLK/FBI, which uses FBI documents that were declassified in 2019 as the jumping-off point to try to understand why the agency put King under such scrutiny. Directed by Sam Pollard, the film is based on David Garrow’s 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., a subject he explored further in an article after the declassified documents were released.
Garrow is one of eight people who is interviewed for the film, although Pollard makes the unusual choice of not showing any of the interviewees on camera. Instead, all the audience sees is a brief chyron with a person’s name while historical footage, photos, and movies about the FBI are rolled out as visuals. While we occasionally get to see video of King and other figures of the time speaking, the majority of the film is silent while the faceless interviewees speak, a technique that is not very dynamic and gets repetitive.
Pollard and his team do their best to approach the film in an even-handed manner. They show how many people in the U.S. at the time were still in fear of Communism taking over, and how the FBI capitalized on that fear to paint King with a red brush, using an association with suspected Communist Stanley Levison as justification to start surveilling him. Naturally, good old-fashioned racism played no small part in their attention, with King’s rise and cause in general seen as detrimental by many white people.
Surveillance eventually turned to wiretaps on King’s and his associates' phones, as well as informants embedded with him, and it was then that they discovered what is now common knowledge: That King was unfaithful to his wife. The FBI tried to exploit this information to undermine King’s moral authority in a variety of ways, most distastefully when they sent a supposed recording of King with another woman to his house, along with a letter suggesting that he kill himself.
The interviewees, which also include King confidants/friends Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, historians Beverly Gage and Donna Murch, and former FBI agent Charles Knox, give some insight into this history, although the format of the film hampers them. Because the footage often doesn’t match exactly what a person is talking about, viewers may find themselves losing the thread of a specific point being made. There’s something to be said for not going the traditional “talking head” route with a documentary, but Pollard may have leaned too far in the opposite direction.
The level of hatred aimed at King late in his life, especially when he took a public stance against the war in Vietnam, is both easy and difficult to believe. But the fact that this loathing was so well-known and that the FBI had constant surveillance on King at the time of his assassination calls into question why they couldn’t have prevented it. The film insinuates that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing him, may not have been to blame, but stops short of outright accusing the FBI of being involved.
Some may not want to watch a documentary that’s not a complete veneration of King, especially on the holiday with his name on it. But MLK/FBI is an important, if imperfect, look at a slice of history that many may not know well.
MLK/FBI is screening in select theaters and is available via premium video on demand.