Two weeks since Martin Luther King’s birthday and one week since Biden’s inauguration, I’ve predictably been thinking a lot about politics. Last week, Dogwoof - a UK based company specialising in distributing some of the world’s best documentaries - released another razor-sharp film. I’ve been pondering it ever since (there’s a lot more time to ponder these days).
MLK/FBI is a new documentary from Academy Award nominee Sam Pollard. It looks at the FBI’s pursuit of Martin Luther King, their use of intense surveillance and engagement with media and popular culture to paint a salacious picture of the civil rights leader. It’s easy to forget that whilst he was alive and fighting for the rights of Black Americans, Dr. King was not always in public favour. In fact, the documentary points out that at the peak of the battle between Dr. King and the FBI, his public approval rating dropped to a low of 17%, while the FBI’s sat at 50%. He was perceived as an angry, dangerous man and a threat to American life.
The FBI’s surveillance continued for several years, intending to expose sordid details about Dr. King’s personal life and sexual preferences. What’s refreshing, is that this film doesn’t aim to treat Dr. King as an untouchable martyr, but a complicated and flawed human being. The surveillance tapes that the FBI created were given to the National Archives in 1977 and will become public domain in 2027. It’s not clear what’s on them, or what their exposure could change about public opinion of Martin Luther King, but there’s an interesting question here about the survival of movements that rely so heavily on individual voices. When we know that we as humans are all flawed, fragile, and therefore fairly easy to tear down, why do we continue to fall into patterns of reliance on individuals?
Pollard has worked closely with one of my favourite directors - Spike Lee - for many years, and was a principal editor for a decade, working on Bamboozled, Jungle Fever and 4 Little Girls, amongst others. His flair for editing can be felt throughout this documentary, which has been pieced together largely from archive materials, and supported by voiceover. It’s a rhythmic style that often allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions to the difficult questions posed, it’s stimulating and thoughtful watching.
MLK/FBI is available to rent on Dogwoof’s website, and if you select Showroom Cinema, a portion of the rental fee comes directly to support us.
This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 28 January 2021.