TIFF 2020: MLK/FBI Review

MLK/FBI. Photo courtesy of TIFF
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MLK/FBI, directed by Emmy® Award-winner and Oscar®-nominee Sam Pollard, reveals documents, recently declassified by the National Archives, which shed light on FBI Chief, J. Edgar Hoover’s fixation with bringing down Martin Luther King Jr. The film exposes Hoover’s motivation because he thought King sympathized with the communists due to King’s association with Stanley Levison, a man with reported ties to the Communist Party. But when Hoover’s surveillance revealed that King had had affairs with as many as 40 women, he gave his agents permission to send King a tape-recording of an orgy in King’s Washington DC hotel.

The film, which interweaves images and documents, as well as archival footage, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unsealed by the National Archives, explores the government’s history of targeting Black activists, particularly King. MLK/FBI features interviews with key cultural figures including former FBI Director James Comey, Yale history professor Beverly Gage and retired FBI agent Charles Knox.

MLK/FBI is the first film to disclose a speculative letter sent by the FBI to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, in which the agency threatened to spread gossip about King’s sex life in the media, “There is but one way out for you.” The letter was interpreted as a suggestion that King commit suicide. 

Pollard said in a statement, “King was pitted against the entire power structure of the government, in that the White House was privy to the surveillance. They would listen in on the recordings. The congressional committees all knew about it. Nobody stopped it.”

The film is based upon the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, David Garrow. Within that same book, Garrow reported that the FBI documents contain information gained from the audio recordings (which are scheduled to be released to the public in 2027) that King watched and laughed while a woman was raped by King’s friend in his Washington DC hotel room. If true, the incident would constitute a criminal act. This is important because the film presents King only as a serial philanderer. Garrow’s book addresses information in the documents that raise serious issues of King’s moral character, separate from his civil rights endeavors. Yet, MLK/FBI does not address this.

MLK/FBI demonstrates that the surveillance tapes of sex orgies (and alleged non-consensual sex acts) were only recorded because the FBI illegally wiretapped King and used the information as blackmail. It is clear that Hoover did not act out of any concern for the women involved, but because they viewed King as something between an ‘uppity negro’ and an active communist sleeper-agent. The film successfully illustrates that Hoover’s only intention in using the information was to further his own political agenda against King and the Civil Rights Movement. However, the credibility of the film is diminished for failing to address the alleged non-consensual acts. 

Generally, MLK/FBI is a captivating film that forces the audience to reexamine Hoover and Dr. King, two powerful, iconic figures who, despite all of their differences, both saw themselves as guardians of the American dream.  

MLK/FBI will be released on January 15, 2021, ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday by IFC Films. For more information, visit MLK/FBI.

About Jillian Dale 70 Articles
Film festival coverage and digital content ninja.

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