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by alejandroariera

"Keeping tabs on a good man"
4 stars

If you still find it hard to believe that a significant number of Americans approve of the storming of the Capitol building by supporters of President Trump as the Congress began the process of certifying the votes from the Electoral Colleges, then consider the following: at the height of the Civil War movement more Americans trusted and believed J. Edgar Hoover, even considered him a hero, than Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover, like Trump after him, was a master media manipulator. He presented himself as “the guardian of the American way of life,” and the entertainment industry was his willing accomplices, pumping out such propagandistic malarkey as “G-Men” (1935) and “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” (1951), and the TV series “The FBI” which ran for nine seasons (1965-74). And what was that American way of life Mr. Hoover wanted to safeguard? Why, a mostly white American way of life where minorities “knew their place.” Nothing scared him more than the arrival of a Black Messiah. Nothing scared him more than Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sam Pollard’s extraordinary and sober new documentary “MLK/FBI” may be arriving to Video on Demand and streaming platforms as well as select movie theaters (in those states where they are still open) on the weekend where most of us are supposed to be celebrating King’s birthday, And most Americans undoubtedly will, especially since his legacy has taken on new urgency after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake by white police officers, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the double standards applied against those protesters as evidenced in the paltry police response during that attempted coup by white supremacists. Pollard’s documentary is not only essential viewing, but also a key piece in our understanding of King’s life, humanity and struggle and how those forces arrayed against him and the black community operated and keep operating.

Based on David Garrow’s “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” published in 1981, Pollard and his team use newly declassified documents to tell anew a story that we all feel we know: the FBI’s continued surveillance of and attempts to blackmail and smear the Civil Rights Leader. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details and the documentary meticulously lays them out, providing context, making great use of archival footage (some beautifully restored), news reels, TV and film clips and, most ingeniously, by never cutting to the faces of such interview subjects as historians Garrow and Beverly Cage and close King confidantes as Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, allowing their voices to guide us through this sordid tale. Pollard and writers Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli leave no stone unturned, even when the documentary takes a brief but necessary detour to describe and show the paraphernalia used by the FBI to keep tabs on MLK, and how Hoover and his right-hand man Bill Sullivan tapped into every single stereotype of Black masculinity and sexuality (clips from “Birth of a Nation” included) to justify their actions.

King first appeared in Hoover’s and the FBI’s radars in the mid-50s; at the time they were far more interested in the men he was beginning to associate with, particularly attorney Stanley Levinson who the FBI believed was a major force in the country’s Communist Party. Alarm bells began to ring once Levinson became a close confidante to and trusted friend of King’s, and then went into full red alert after the 1963 March in Washington that culminated with his now legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked King to distance himself from Levinson. But when RFK found out that King was still meeting with Levinson, he gave Hoover the go-ahead to wiretap the members of his inner circle. And it is during one of these wiretaps that the FBI struck gold when they discovered King’s penchant for extramarital indiscretions. Hoover and his associates immediately began to explore how to exploit this newfound knowledge. And since King’s non-stop travels were common knowledge, the FBI stayed two steps ahead by sending agents ahead to bug his room. King, however, dismissed Jones’ concerns about their being wiretapped by the FBI. The agency likewise recruited Black informants like photographer Ernest Wilkins (later acclaimed for his pictorial documentation of the Civil Rights Movement’s key milestones) and Jim Harrison to keep tabs on King.

Hoover even publicly accused King of being a liar, leading to a confrontation between the two men in the media and a face-to-face meeting that was no more than a dog and pony show. Newspapers and TV stations ignored Hoover’s continued leaks and entreaties about making public King’s extramarital affairs; they were far more interested on the continued accusations that the Civil Rights Movement was infiltrated by communists. Pollard shows us clips of MLK being interrogated on this matter by the likes of Dan Rather as well as an incredibly condescending and downright despicable line of questioning from Gay Parley Sehon from UPI; the dignity and clear-headedness with which King answers their questions is admirable.

Hoover and Sullivan were not only offended by King’s international reputation (Nobel Peace Prize included) but were also frustrated that nothing was happening with their leaks. And so Sullivan took the next, dirty step by sending a recording to King’s house in Atlanta with a note demanding he kill himself. The final turning point in this decades-long battle took place in 1967 when, believing that non-violence was a “Christian ethic to be applied to the whole world,” King came out against the Vietnam War, alienating his ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Declaring King a threat to his war policy, Johnson orders Hoover to intensify his eavesdropping; at the same time, every single liberal newspaper in the country attacked MLK for his stance. His poor people’s campaign was now seen by the FBI as a threat to capitalism. But even as King confronted an emotional crisis, we see how he never wavered from his mission, no matter how many demons and doubts were stirring within him. It would all come to a tragic end April 4, 1968 when King was assassinated.

The FBI tapes are currently archived and won’t be made public until 2027. Pollard ends the film with his interviewees on-camera talking about the merits of making these tapes public. Heaven knows what our current social-media, short span, conspiracy and clickbait-driven world will make of these tapes when they are released. The tapes may help humanize King even more, who knows. But their existence provides an understanding of the evil that led to such reprehensible actions by this government and the mechanism that are still being used to suppress any dissent in this country. And that is one reason why I am glad this documentary exists. I sure hope people revisit it in 2027.

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originally posted: 01/16/21 00:00:00
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Directed by
  Sam Pollard

Written by
  Benjamin Hedin
  Laura Tomaselli


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