History tells us that J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI from 1924 to 1972. James Earl Jones, in a short voiceover near the start of “MLK/FBI,” tells us, “From 1955 to 1968, Martin Luther King led a peaceful 20th-century American revolution.”
In this documentary that looks at the achievements and interactions of both men, mostly during the 1960s, it’s suggested that Hoover was attempting to protect the American way of life, and it’s stated that King’s goal was to champion the Civil Rights Movement through love and passive resistance. But what the film ends up concentrating on is Hoover’s plan to use the FBI to conduct surveillance on King, to attempt to humiliate him and weaken his leadership by exposing secrets of his private life.
It turns out to be a thought-provoking but selective look at events of the day, but anyone hoping for a cascade of salacious tidbits about King is going to be disappointed. It’s the central subject of the FBI’s dirty work, and it’s talked about, but no details are given.
Plentiful archival footage, including King speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington, during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Protest, and when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, paints King in a positive light. But, says historian Beverly Gage, in voiceover, the FBI was alarmed about him because of his success, about the way won over crowds of people. An FBI memo that went out two days after the Lincoln Memorial speech said, in part, “We must mark (King) now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of the nation.”
Hoover and his FBI could not let this much-admired Black man rile up the Black masses in what Hoover and his ilk considered to be white America. To make things worse, in the late-1950s and early-1960s, King had become friendly with Stanley Levison, a white Jewish lawyer who was involved in civil rights and had ties to the Communist Party. All Hoover saw there was a powerful Black man and Red flags.
Director Sam Pollard fills his documentary with clips from various FBI movies (“The FBI Story,” “Walk a Crooked Mile,” “I Was a Communist for the FBI”), but those are entertaining pieces of window dressing. There’s no fooling around when he tells of Hoover getting permission, from then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to start wiretapping Levison and later on King, as well as a mutual friend of theirs, the attorney Clarence Jones. It was during King’s stay at Jones’ home that the wiretaps picked up information regarding King’s previously unknown “non-monogamous” private life. The fuse was lit. The FBI was going to find out more about any additional girlfriends, then nail him. Wiretaps led to planted microphones in hotel rooms and more.
But King and his plans for his people remained on an upward trajectory. His winning the Nobel Peace Prize undoubtedly rattled Hoover, as did King’s at one time close relationships with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But JFK was killed and King started speaking out against what had become LBJ’s war in Vietnam. And while all of that was happening, Hoover’s plan to get him and stop his “social revolution” turned into an obsession.
Much to the consternation of Hoover and his longtime right hand man William Sullivan, no one was paying attention to the secret tapes that were supposed to ruin King. The reason nothing ever came of the surveillance tapes is twofold: King was murdered in 1968 and the government ordered the tapes to be sealed away.
There remain questions concerning whether the FBI could have prevented James Earl Ray from shooting Martin Luther King Jr. that day in Memphis. But Pollard ends the film with some information that goes back to the future of those tapes. Leave it at this: They won’t be sealed forever, and no one around today knows if they’ll clear up or damage the reputation of Dr. King.
“MLK/FBI” opens in selected theaters and premiers on VOD on Jan. 15.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli; directed by Sam Pollard
With lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and others
This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Movie review: New documentary looks at Hoover’s FBI attempt to ruin Martin Luther King Jr.