Sam Pollard's essential documentary explores the brutal FBI campaign against Dr. King and finds a villain in J. Edgar Hoover
One of the most quietly sinister pieces of modern historiography is the pervasive, but utterly false, notion that Martin Luther King was a universally beloved figure in his own lifetime, a man who simply asked America nicely for Black Civil Rights. It’s an idea that has allowed his legacy to be claimed by people who have no right to it – conservatives who sneer at the Black Lives Matter movement, “woke” centrists who would never support King’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, and (most insultingly) even the FBI.
Sam Pollard’s vital documentary MLK/FBI does important work disabusing any viewer of the notion that King was, somehow, uncontroversial. It explores the many ways the FBI tried to discredit, harm, and perhaps even murder King, while taking care to note that the majority of the white American public did not support his work. The battle for Civil Rights was a brutal one, both physically and emotionally, and MLK/FBI makes powerful use of recently declassified FBI documents that showed how J. Edgar Hoover’s agency sought to psychologically damage King in any way possible.
It’s sickening stuff, made all the more unpleasant by the seedy motivations of Hoover, whose seething sexual jealousy of King and Black men in general is horribly obvious in his anti-Civil Rights Movement missives. It’s the kind of pathetic white fragility that would be funny if it weren’t so lethally dangerous, but instead serves to infuriate, a reminder that the powerful don’t cede their position without a protracted, dirty fight.
It’s hardly new information that law enforcement abused King and his allies (even the theory that the FBI were behind King’s assassination is, by now, rather mainstream), and the full story of the federal surveillance operations can’t be told until more files are released in 2027 at the earliest. Yet Pollard lays out the material he does have with such unflinching clarity that it’s impossible to not be struck anew with a sense of rage and injustice – feelings that will linger long after the credits roll.
MLK/FBI is now available to rent and buy on various streaming services.Where to watch