Director: Sam Pollard
Runtime: 104 minutes
Cast: Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Beverly Gage, David J. Garrow, Andrew Young, Donna Murch, James Comey, Clarence Jones, Charles Knox, Marc Perrusquia.
Synopsis: Based on newly declassified files, Sam Pollard’s resonant film explores the US government’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today as an American hero: a bridge-builder, a shrewd political tactician, a Nobel Laureate and a moral leader. Yet throughout his history-altering political career, he was often treated by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies as an enemy of the state. In this timely documentary, award-winning Editor and Director Sam Pollard [Sammy Davis, Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me (2017), Mr. Soul: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power (TV Documentary) (2017) Editor: 4 Little Girls (1997), Mo’ Better Blues (1990); Director/Producer: Eyez on the Prize, (1990)] recounts the government’s obsession with the Civil Rights leader and their efforts to blackmail and disempower him during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Drawing upon newly discovered and declassified files, with a trove of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unsealed by the National Archives, as well as revelatory restored footage, the documentary tells this astonishing and tragic story with searing relevance to our current moment.
MLK/FBI lays out a detailed account of the FBI surveillance that dogged King’s activism throughout the ’50s and ’60s, fuelled by the racist and red-baiting paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover. In crafting a rich archival tapestry, featuring some revelatory restored footage of King, Pollard urges us to remember that true American progress is always hard-won.
Inspired by the work of historian David Garrow, the film uses the recently declassified files to study the FBI’s motives and methods. In the 1950s and ’60s, when Black people started mobilizing to fight racial discrimination, Hoover saw the movement as a communist plot. Rather than support equality, the FBI sought to undermine King through wiretapping and blackmail, in what former FBI director James Comey calls “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”
Emmy® Award-winner and Oscar®-nominee filmmaker Sam Pollard has been immersed in US racial politics for decades, from his collaborations with Henry Hampton and Spike Lee to his own documentaries. He applies his mastery of archival footage to draw upon eclectic sources, from newsreels to Hollywood secret-agent movies. With visuals rooted in the ’50s and ’60s, he overlays contemporary audio interviews from multiple perspectives, including King’s colleagues Andrew Young and Clarence B. Jones.
Pollard doesn’t flinch from the murky areas of the story — including the FBI wiretaps alleging King’s non-monogamous relationships with over forty women, which the FBI attempted to use to humiliate King and break his spirit. The film wrestles with how historians should treat such iniquitous recordings.
This astonishing and tragic story, with searing relevance today, reminds us that King’s life was cut short at age 39 while Hoover’s FBI reign lasted 48 years. Today, we see their legacies continue in a new wave of protests and resistance. This film is a crucial way to connect the past to the present and examine difficult ethical questions and whether we are complicit in the FBI’s unlawful invasion of his privacy. Ultimately, the film seems to conclude that hopefully in 2020 (and beyond) we collectively have the maturity to understand that none of it takes away from what he achieved, even while all the issues in this gripping episode are still unresolved.
The virtual premiere of this film, presented with We Are Parable, was followed by a recorded Q&A with MLK/FBI director Sam Pollard, and a newly commissioned spoken word piece from Aicha Loubassou, exploring and reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr’s experiences while the target of FBI harassment.
In virtual cinemas and on demand
Images courtesy of Dogwoof