MLK/FBI: Man vs. Machine, by David Bax
Though Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI can be said to be about both the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it is by no means a biography of either man. Sure, it can be revealing, letting us see how King’s fierce intellect gave him an astounding ability to not appear angry while directly addressing insults or allowing us to wonder whether Hoover’s racism mixed with his sexual repression produced the perfect cocktail of hatred for King given what the FBI knew about him. The film also, for what it’s worth, has a few things to say about Lyndon B. Johnson; those who complained the former president was treated poorly in 2014’s Selma will be really displeased this time. But, on the whole–sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse–MLK/FBI is more about a revealing chapter from our national history than it is about its participants.
Pollard intertwines two stories into one. First, there is the story of King’s activism during the 1960s. Second, there is the story of the FBI’s draconian, obsessive surveillance and undermining of him at the same time.
MLK/FBI‘s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend release is not the only thing making it potentially relevant to present day audiences. The institutional, codified racism of organizations like the FBI and the way that King’s white political allies are quick to turn against him as soon as he exceeds their boundaries (in this case, by speaking out against the war in Vietnam) are contributing factors to the distrust of the government by Black people that still exists today. And the tidbit that Hoover’s approval rating at the time was a full 30 points ahead of King’s reminds us that the ignoramuses who have commanded so much attention–and done so much damage–to America in the last half decade didn’t come from nowhere. They’ve always been here. In King’s day, they feared he’d inspire a civil war; this year, they tried to start one themselves.
And it’s impossible to overlook the topical aspect of the film that Pollard seems most eager to acknowledge, the role and power of law enforcement. The abuse King suffered at the hands of Hoover and his men was doled out in the name of law and order. Pollard invites bitter laughter at this sick irony by including in the clips and footage that make up MLK/FBI multiple scenes of Hollywood movies that acted as FBI propaganda. These are among the chief delights of the film’s collage style but not the only ones. Pollard also, for instance, finds two shots of King and Hoover being mobbed by reporters in the same hallway and elevator bank on two completely different days.
Those sparks of inspiration or personality are given but brief moments in the sun. MLK/FBI is focused on the facts and the story at hand, sometimes perhaps to a fault. Perhaps a little more indulgence could have kept at bay the impression that most of the movie is just a really well made PowerPoint presentation.
Maybe in an attempt to distance itself from those types of documentaries, MLK/FBI almost completely avoids talking heads; interviewees are generally heard and not seen. But, then again, maybe that choice is indicative of the film’s most subconscious concern, yet another that will be recognizable to modern audiences. By the end, as experts fret about what will be revealed when Hoover’s wiretap and bug recordings of King become public (scheduled to happen in 2027), MLK/FBI starts to reflect our ongoing anxieties about lionizing individual people only to later duke it out in the culture wars when those human beings turn out to be human. Whether these eventual revelations tarnish King’s reputation as a champion of justice and equality or not shouldn’t keep us from striving for justice and equality.