‘MLK/FBI’ Sheds Light on the FBI’s Obsessive Surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr

MLK/FBI” shines a light on a subterranean corner of American history. This new documentary from Sam Pollard makes a potent dual achievement: It covers the history of the FBI’s years-long obsession with civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while presenting a more human, even flawed, portrait of King than has ever been attempted before. His complexities bring the symbol closer to us as viewers, as he traverses a nightmare conjured by one of the supreme American villains, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

For Pollard the journey began with the controversial book “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis” by historian David J. Garrow, who is also featured in the documentary. “My producer, Ben Hedin, read Garrow’s book about the FBI and Dr. King, J. Edgar Hoover and their surveillance of King, and he then gave me the book and we both had the idea that this should be our second film together, we had already done a film together named ‘Two Trains Runnin,’” Pollard told Entertainment Voice. “I happened to know Garrow, so we reached out to him, took an option on his book and we took a camera crew to his house in Pittsburgh and spent four hours sitting with him.” 

The narrative Garrow, and fellow scholars Beverly Gage of Yale and Donna Murch of Rutgers, shed light on begins in August 1963. This was when King spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The rapturous response to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the rise of the nonviolent civil rights movement, rang alarm bells at the FBI of the potential rise of Black American mobilization with radical potential. Hoover, a Cold War obsessive and racist who had been running the bureau since the ‘20s, became particularly fixated on the idea that King, a Baptist preacher, could somehow be a Communist tool. A virtual secret police-style war was unleashed on King, involving agents tracking his every move and wiretapping hotels and offices. It is the tapes Hoover’s agents recorded and filed that provide the documentary’s most unsettling and mysterious core. There is the hint they potentially capture evidence of King carrying out extramarital affairs, which Hoover then hoped could be used to either blackmail or publicly humiliate him. While typed and written reports are now newly declassified and available through the National Archives, the recordings  and photographs are sealed away until 2027.

Pollard himself went to the Archives and poured through the evidence, finding an infamous letter FBI official William Sullivan prepared and mailed to King’s home, claiming to know of his hidden trysts and suggesting he commit suicide. “The biggest surprise was the idea that the FBI would go to such lengths when they had Sullivan create this letter basically suggesting that Dr. King should kill himself and then included an audio tape of supposedly King in some situation with another woman, then sending it to his wife, Coretta,” said Pollard. “That’s when I thought the FBI had gone too far. Their job initially was to surveillance King because they thought he might be connected to the Communist Party, but when they found out he had relationships with women other than his wife, they went off in that direction hoping they could gather enough audio to pass on to the press. But this was the ‘60s. The press didn’t do that kind of thing. They didn’t go into people’s personal lives like we do today.”

With intense, at times poetic editing, Pollard chronicles King’s era. He becomes a dynamic cultural figure Hoover viewed as a threat to the conservative American ethos of law and order, not to mention white social dominance. This was still the early era of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s lawless program targeting activists and figures deemed to be domestic threats. With a tactful finesse, Pollard touches on the more controversial aspects of the FBI documents. “MLK/FBI” humanizes King with a careful touch of iconoclasm. A great man, yes, but flawed like any other human being. There is little doubt he had extramarital affairs, but how many and of what nature, remains murky. “As a documentarian I’m trying not to just present the character or the subject in one light,” said Pollard, “I’m trying to show them in multi ways. I wanted to show that Dr. King, like a lot of us, had a complicated life, he was a complicated human being with a lot of stuff on his plate. There were things that he succeeded at. There were things that he and the movement failed at. He had a very complicated personal life. I just felt it was important to show all those aspects. I don’t think quite honestly, that anything we’ve done in this film is going to undermine or undercut how important his contribution was to American history and to the world.” One can almost see in the vintage and rare footage Pollard uses the weariness on King as his fame and prestige grow, meaning more commitments and greater dangers. When King speaks out against the Vietnam War even some liberal supporters suddenly turn against him. “Some people don’t want to remember that King was about the human agenda, he was about all humankind coming together and questioning why an imperialist country like America was fighting in Vietnam.” By then Hoover’s people had managed to even find collaborators within the movement, informants who helped keep track of King.

The one moment of “MLK/FBI” that may generate the most controversy relates to a supposed recording, for now only detailed in agents’ notes, which Garrow himself tried to write about for a few years but found heavy pushback from publications. In the recording King is alleged to have stood by while a member of his entourage raped a woman in a hotel room. If such an atrocious moment is confirmed to be true, it would certainly shake future studies of King. But the scholars in the documentary carefully question the validity of the report, or conclude we just can’t make further conclusions until the tapes are released. “After we did our initial interview with Garrow we went back a year later, and we asked him a bunch of questions about what he felt his agenda was as a historian to write about that tape. Why did you feel you had to go so far? But quite honestly, you should be asking me the same question,” said Pollard. “Someone might wonder if we as documentarians are doing the exact same thing the FBI was trying to do. My response is that I feel that as a filmmaker we’ve tried to be a little more even-handed, not be salacious in our presentation, and challenge people to ask questions. What was really going on in that room? Did the FBI really hear what they thought they heard? Or did they improvise and alter what was there?”

A Black American movement threatening the established order through nonviolence, a white ruling class in the institutions of government attempting to subvert such a social uprising. The themes of “MLK/FBI” are an important look back at American history still very recent in historical terms, yet they are powerfully vivid because it is history still playing itself out. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests of 2020 make the figures and clashing ideas of Pollard’s film both vivid and urgent.  “This is a wakeup call for those who don’t know this history,” said Pollard. “It’s important to understand our history and realize that even what happened recently with the storming of the Capitol was not an anomaly. It was something that certain people in America have done for hundreds of years. This is part of America’s DNA. Watching this film you should understand that America has always been resistant to change. If one person yells ‘fire’ they all go and attack. It’s amazing. What Trump did is something that white America has done for a couple of hundred years. It’s not new.”

MLK/FBI” releases Jan. 15 on VOD and select cities.