Review: ‘MLK/FBI’ is a provocative, disturbing chronicle of King vs. Hoover

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'MLK/FBI'

If you missed it at the Middleburg Film Festival or the Double Exposure: Investigative Film Festival back in October, you can finally watch “MLK/FBI” from the comfort of your home.

The provocative documentary is now streaming just in time for the MLK holiday.

The film chronicles civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he is investigated, wiretapped and harassed by the FBI under the iron fist of Director J. Edgar Hoover between November 1963 and his assassination in April 1968.

The film is directed by Sam Pollard, who was Spike Lee’s editor on “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) and “Jungle Fever” (1991) before producing Spike’s powerful documentaries “4 Little Girls” (1997) and “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006).

This time, Pollack works with writers Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli, who use newly declassified documents as their impetus. They comb through the files during a series of interviews with Beverly Gage, David J. Garrow, Andrew Young, Donna Murch, Clarence Jones, Charles Knox, Marc Perrusquia and former FBI Director James Comey.

We’ve all seen footage of King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, but few of us have actually read the memo that FBI Director of Domestic Intelligence William Sullivan wrote in response. To see the words on screen is downright disturbing: “We must mark him now … as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

Like Ava DuVernay’s biopic “Selma” (2014), “MLK/FBI” doesn’t shy away from King’s extramarital affairs, showing a flawed man, warts and all, just as any documentary on John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton or Donald Trump should. The film shows the personal toll it took on King, causing a constant state of paranoia even during his Nobel Peace Prize.

Likewise, the film underlines the sketchy motives behind the FBI’s bugging of King’s motel rooms, depicting an agency hungry for salacious material in order to discredit him. Hoover is the clear antagonist, albeit with the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who publicly pushed civil rights legislation.

The most chilling scene comes as Comey reads a threatening letter to King, presumably written by a member of the FBI, urging him to kill himself in a case of blackmail suicide.

Footage of the March on Washington will land differently after recent events, its peaceful protest standing as the polar opposite of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Even last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, while mostly peaceful and wearing masks, burned a police station in Portland, Oregon, undercutting King’s nonviolent message.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” King once said. “MLK/FBI” reminds us that King wasn’t always an untouchable, bipartisan symbol of peace, but rather someone whom half of Americans ignorantly deemed dangerous in his own time. Be careful who you call a rabble rouser today; they might just become tomorrow’s most exalted freedom fighter.

Will recent events push “MLK/FBI” into the Oscar race? While it won Best Documentary at a few film festivals, there might not be room against “Crip Camp,” “Boys State,” “The Dissident,” “Desert One,” “76 Days,” “Time” and “The Social Dilemma.”

In the end, its biggest flaw is that it’s a bit anticlimactic, confessing during the end credits that most of the documents remain under seal until at least 2027. That’s a long time to wait for cinematic closure, but even in its redacted state, “MLK/FBI” is valuable viewing.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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