Review: 'MLK/FBI' examines Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the lens of J. Edgar Hoover
Right on time, "MLK/FBI" will be available for all to see, over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. It's the latest documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Sam Pollard (watch my recent interview with Sam Pollard), whose last two docs, "Mr. SOUL!" and "Two Trains Runnin'" were two of the best documentaries of the last decade.
As always, Pollard's latest effort could not have come at a better time, when our country should heed the lessons of Dr. King's non-violent protests, juxtaposed against the government's continuous effort to keep powerful black leaders in check.
"MLK/FBI" is an in-depth examination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through the eyes of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover WAS the FBI, having held its top position from the late 1920s into the 1970s (you read that right!). During the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, Hoover was closely monitoring the movement's leaders, not only assessing their threat levels, but also their supposed connections within the Communist party.
Pollard begins and ends his new film with a mugshot video of Dr. King...his youthful innocence reflecting back at us in his eyes years before he would be able to comprehend the impact he'd have on the world. In-between these shots, Pollard effectively tells us the story of Dr. King's rise until his heinous assassination, stolen from us at age 39.
But unlike anything else you've ever seen about Dr. King, Pollard's movie is told from the perspective of the FBI. The film itself is spawned from the recent release of new declassified FBI documents that reveal specifics about Dr. King's life...particularly that he was known to have several salacious relationships outside of his marriage. The FBI had been collecting such data to use against Dr. King, and the charges range from King having "women on the side" to more outrageous, unproven allegations of King partaking in an orgy and standing idly by as a young woman was raped.
"MLK/FBI" explains that such personal details help us to better understand its subject...it also debates whether or not such details are even relevant. It does not answer the question for the audience. In fact, engaging the audience is a strong suit of Pollard's film-making abilities, as is providing rich context. The film is a biography, a history lesson and a cautionary tale all wrapped into one, with the obvious underpinnings of being very timely given what is currently going on in today's America.
Watching scenes from Dr. King's peaceful "March on Washington" is made even more striking following the events of 1/6/21, where seditious Americans stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in five deaths. Dr. King's vision of America was only one part of the Civil Rights movement, seen through the eyes of Hoover as a dangerous threat to what he considered to be American principles.
"MLK/FBI" is powerful, gripping and masterfully crafted by a filmmaker who is clearly one of the best around...it manages to provide us new layers of a man who is often defined as just one thing, but who in fact - like all of us - is full of complexity and nuance.
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
Directed by Sam Pollard ("Mr. SOUL!", "Two Trains Runnin'").
"MLK/FBI" is available on VOD on Friday, January 15th, 2021.
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