The FBI’s covert wiretapping, harassment and defamation campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s is the subject of this startling but at times frustrating and cautious documentary. This campaign of poisonous dirty tricks continued until King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, a murder the office was somehow unable to prevent, despite its fanatical 24-hour surveillance of King as well as his highly proclaimed dedication to the fight against crime.
It is now common knowledge that King was an imperfect human being and had extramarital sex, but it is an ever-mysterious part of his public image. (Even Ava DuVernay’s beautiful biopic tale of King in her 2014 film Selma, starring David Oyelowo, tactfully breaks those indiscretions.) Office audio tapes of alleged meetings in hotel rooms were ultimately, in 1977, handed over to the National Archives by order of a federal judge but sealed – they cannot be released until 2027 at the earliest. What exactly will they prove? Nothing at all? All we have right now are the typed-up very subjective summary reports from the officers.
This film by Sam Pollard, based largely on the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David J Garrow, shows just how strangely toxic and dysfunctional the FBI campaign was, an ongoing secret war that involved the race to informants within the civil rights movement – a painful and even tragic situation. aspect of this story that probably deserves a documentary of its own. Office manager J Edgar Hoover was angered by King’s leftist associations and his international fame, especially after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. After singing about evidence of his adultery, Hoover hoped to use it to undermine it, and with Despite, the tapes were distributed to King’s wife, Coretta, and even church leaders and the press, apparently hoping (in vain) that someone had them. would make public.
There was even a suggestion that King was present during a rape – and this movie, very cautiously indeed, comes close to hinting that there may one day be a MeToo case to answer. But wait. Where is the proof here? Where is the denomination of the names? Could the office, with all the dark powers at its disposal, have made one of King’s purported mistresses come forward and go public? Apparently not. That’s a question this movie doesn’t fully address, though it certainly gives us a very detailed picture of Hoover’s sheer paranoid villainy.
• MLK / FBI is on digital platforms from January 15th.
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