Can we judge a man’s character through the eyes of his enemies? How do we honor the legacy of a hero while understanding him as a human being?
These are major questions posed in Sam Pollard’s involved and fascinating documentary MLK/FBI, now at the New York Film Festival. Pollard’s work attempts to grapple with the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., through the analysis of recently unsealed documents that chronicle the FBI’s chronic surveillance of King throughout his career. The film deals not only with King’s history and legacy, but the shaping of that legacy by a major government intelligence agency, guided by the obsession of two men: J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s long-term director, and William Sullivan, eventual head of the COINTELPRO operation that sought to investigate, undermine, and discredit Black leaders and organizations during the Civil Rights movement.
Pollard’s documentary focuses on the numerous FBI documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act that reveal the true extent of the FBI’s surveillance, including their possible involvement (or, really, lack of involvement) in the events leading to King’s assassination. The first step is to situate King in the context of the Civil Rights movement as one of the most publicly visible leaders, in concert with the growth of the FBI and Hoover’s increasing obsession with Communist infiltration of the US. While Pollard uses extensive commentary and interviews with former agents, members of King’s circle, and Civil Rights historians and biographers, there are no talking head interviews. The voices supplement extensive and previously unseen footage from King’s life and career, allowing the images, often, to speak for themselves.
But MLK/FBI is as much about American culture itself as it is about a particular moment and person. Pollard further sets the surveillance of King in the context of the Red Scare, the growth of Black Power movements, and American pop culture veneration of the FBI itself. King, the documentary argues, threatened not just the political status quo, but forced white America to look at its own racist history and racist assumptions. The FBI was (is?) a reinforcement of mainstream white culture, not an outlier from them, and the representations of the agency in film and television contribute to the extreme binarism of American political attitudes. In his time, King was seen as the radical threat to much of white America, while the FBI was the safe reinforcement of the status quo.
MLK/FBI’s argument wobbles a bit as it comes to deal with the actual content of the FBI surveillance. Some assumptions about the contents of the surveillance tapes themselves have to be made, based on the documents—the tapes are not eligible to be unsealed until 2027. But certainly the FBI shifted its focus from King’s political activity and relationships to his personal and sexual life, observing and reporting on numerous extramarital affairs and even one accusation of participation in a rape. Many of the voices on this issue elide over the latter in particular—it’s not at all clear how or why the agents surveilling King came to some of the conclusions they did, and all the conclusions are certainly shaped by what the FBI wants to find as to opposed to what they did find. But the film doesn’t entirely deal with the possibilities of what the FBI claims in the documents, though it does contextualize the fear of King’s sexuality in broader terms of racism, the stereotype of promiscuous Black men, and the fears about Black sexuality in white America.
Most damning, and something even admitted by the FBI agents, including former director James Comey, is the fact that the agency was actively surveilling King through 1968 and at yet did nothing to interfere in his assassination. While the film stops short of accusing the FBI of complicity or of engineering the assassination, there’s little doubt that a major government law enforcement agency was watching King and his circle’s every move, and that King was assassinated at close range. At best, the FBI was guilty of inaction.
But this film is also about how we come to understand King as a human being and not the sainted public figure he has become. Pollard examines his depression, his ongoing conflict with Hoover, the stress inherent in being a major face, if not the face, of a sweeping social and political movement. When Sullivan sends a tape and anonymous letter to Coretta Scott King revealing her husband’s infidelity and exhorting King to kill himself, we’re reminded that these are real human beings with real marriages, real foibles, real flaws and virtues. And the question of how we continue to reinforce King’s legacy and history, and how we understand him as a man rather than as a saint, is a central issue at stake.
It is not a question that either MLK/FBI or the viewer can completely answer. This is a valuable documentary not least because it does not shy away from the fact of King’s humanity, looking at him as a person rather than an idol, and not proposing to be the final answer to how we understand or navigate his legacy—especially given that so much of that legacy is shaped by a culture that despised him, and an agency that persecuted him. Here was a man who did great things, whose influence will last hundreds of years after his death, who was feared and hated by another man whose legacy and influence will also last hundreds of years. King’s persona and personhood has been loved, hated, lambasted, and venerated. By understanding him as a human being, we can better understand what has actually shaped our collective history as a country, and what will continue to shape our present.
MLK/FBI is currently on at the New York Film Festival.