I will be the first to admit that I knew nothing about the harassment Martin Luther King Jr. faced by the FBI. “MLK/FBI” follows newly declassified FBI files that explain just how deep their surveillance went. At the same time, we’re also given an outlook on the lies within both sides of the equation. Director Sam Pollard does something quite incredible here, which defies the conventions of what we’ve come to expect from a standard documentary. As someone who didn’t understand how deep this corruption went, Pollard’s delivery conveyed it entertainingly.
On average, a documentary follows the format of what filmmakers call “talking heads.” This is normally when you have an individual being interviewed by the filmmakers. While we have some of that here, there is more usage of historical footage of King himself. This footage varies from peaceful protests, to King going to meet with Lyndon B. Johnson. The element I found to be the most surprising was just how much the film emphasized the villainy of J. Edgar Hoover. Pollard dives into the idea of governmental paranoia of the time, which makes the film feel like a tightly wound political thriller. Particularly in the film's second act, this paranoia is what I found to be most fascinating.
Besides on the side of the FBI, we also get moments that show the fear King himself faced in these times. Someone who faced the copious amounts of pressure that he did, never broke his moral code. While we do get brief moments of people speaking about King’s wrongs—his affairs—Pollard never tries to vilify him. Where some may mistake it as vilification, King is humanized. Some consider him to be a figure on a pedestal but the film goes to great lengths in explaining he was just a person. He was able to accomplish quite a bit and like anyone else, still faced challenges in the process. It’s a truly unique portrayal of this hero, but that’s not to say the film does not have some problems.
Clocking in at 100 minutes, we cover a lot of ground in the most pivotal moments of King’s life. In doing so, there’s lots of detail that we unfortunately miss, that could’ve emphasized how deep and twisted this investigation got. The details of surveillance equipment and how they specifically tracked King and his supporters aren’t expounded upon. It may come across as nitpicking, but to go for a more horrific sensibility showing those details is the way to go. There’s a lot that audiences don’t fully understand about this story and this film is a great way to take the lid off a hidden history. There is a possibility that we may eventually get more of that information, it’s just too early to tell.
“MLK/FBI” most definitely falls in the category of something audiences need to seek out. It informs without preaching about what should’ve been done differently. In seven years, the FBI will unseal audio recordings that they have from their surveillance of King. Once those audiotapes are revealed, some of the questions I had may get their appropriate answers. For now, I can’t argue the fact that Pollard’s film did the job of stirring an emotional, angry response within me. With real-life events in a fluctuating, dangerous state it’s hard for me to recommend you rush to see the film. If you want to see something that will make you think and feel, you can’t do better than this video on demand title.