2021, NR, 102 min. Directed by Sam Pollard.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 15, 2021
Why did the Federal Bureau of Investigations wiretap and bug the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Was it because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saw him (in his own words) as "the most dangerous negro in America"? Well, yes, but that's a fragment of the story, as shown in Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI.
The tapes themselves are sealed in the National Archive until 2027, and only the FBI field agents' notes have been released so far. Hoover, for his own reasons, gave us this archive. It's up to us to decide what to do with it, and in Pollard's case it's to add extra nuance and detail to our picture of MLK. He has become arguably the preeminent documentarian of the civil rights era, starting as producer on the epic Eyes on the Prize and running right through his recent deluge of documentaries around key figures in midcentury Black culture, culminating in last year's Mr. Soul!, making him the ideal measured voice for this thorny subject.
Through talking heads over archive materials, Pollard deftly explains why the tapes exist and how the inflated claims about national security were no excuse for them being recorded. However, they are now part of the historical record, a rare public insight into the private aspects of a public figure. The filmmaker's disinterest in the iconic civic sainthood of MLK, instead prioritizing the more detailed portrait of the man, means that the recording cannot be treated as apocrypha to be sealed away. That means the subject could undoubtedly be treated in a salacious manner, which is exactly what Hoover intended when he tried (and failed) to get the contemporary press to pick up the stories of affairs, orgies, and the particularly troubling accusation that King was present as a woman was raped. Those allegations emerged with the reports in 2019 and were picked up (unsurprisingly) by the right-wing press: Meanwhile, many progressive outlets were more circumspect, reporting on the reporting. Instead, Pollard does what any good historian should do: take the information and contextualize it, in doing so opening up new lines of discussion. What did being taped mean for King? What did it mean for Coretta Scott King, who understood that the FBI was weaponizing the specter of a black man's sexuality to derail the civil rights movement, while also contending with audio evidence that her husband was cheating on her? Why did the FBI's attention turn from communism to the civil rights movement? Why would agents just keep surveilling if they thought a woman was being raped in the adjoining room?
The constant shadow is that all Pollard has to go on are agents' notes, based on their interpretations of what they heard and intended to appeal to Hoover. The tapes themselves are still classified, and out of reach for another six years. That's why Pollard emphasizes context over definitive answers, but he also skirts around some issues, pulling out to the bigger picture of the civil rights movement when the question of King the flawed man is central. Similarly, the singular reference to Hoover's own sexuality – which is posed initially as vital context – is obliquely handled. In his efforts to avoid either a prurient or puritanical tone, Pollard almost seems unsure how to tackle his own subject.
This might be a more critical failing if the documentary was a definitive statement: instead, it's Pollard reframing the debate. Conservative activists have already used the files to savage King, and progressive writers will have to contend with what the tapes contain eventually, good and ill. As former Congressman, Southern Christian Leadership Conference executive director and King confidant Andrew Young somberly explains, the tapes represent "this unresolved tension in who we are, who we say we are, and who we want to be."