Thursday, January 14, 2021

Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI further exposes yet another shameful episode in our nation's history of law enforcement

Back in 2017 producer/director/editor Sam Pollard (shown below) co-directed one of the year's best documentaries, Acorn and the Firestorm. He's back this week with the new doc, MLK/FBI, the acronym-titled movie all about the connection between and harassment and illegal surveillance by our Federal Bureau of Investigation of Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader at this mid-20th-Century time of America's black population and the chief organizer of the non-violent protests for racial equality going on throughout the USA.

As one of the film's interviewees, James Comey, points out, this lengthy episode is one of the most shameful in the FBI's off-and-on shameful history. And Mr. Comey should know, being himself no stranger to shame,  having later headed the FBI and served briefly under that icon of Presidential shame, Donald Trump. 

Many of us have long heard about this FBI harassment of King, as well as of others such as actress Jean Seberg and just about any black man or woman -- Fred Hampton to Angela Davis -- who rose to prominence in the movement for black equality. What MLK/FBI gives us is a broader, deeper look into the whole sleazy mess of FBI wire tapping and audio taping than has heretofore been seen.

Pollard and his writers (Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli) bring the history of the tapping and taping of MLK on the phone, in hotel rooms and elsewhere, along with many important details of what went on at this time. In the process it also gives a richer, somewhat clearer portrait of Dr. King, shown above. As one of the several narrators points out early on, "Whatever comes out on these tapes" -- the tapes themselves will not be released until 2027, though official FBI memos exist and are shown here, explaining some of what is heard on those tapes -- "will help us better understand him (MLK) as a human being. And that's our duty: to understand."

To that end, we learn of the FBI memo which says that King must be destroyed because he is the most dangerous Negro in America. Why? Due to his supposed ties to Communism, of course. To that end,  we learn about lawyer Stanley D. Levison, one of King's best friends, and himself a former Communist. Yet, after much investigation, the FBI knew that there was no evidence linking Levison to any Communist  plot. Still the agency proceeded with its sleazy and unnecessary surveillance, taping King's hotel-room sexual trysts.

The documentary makes no excuses for Dr. King's sexual needs nor the way in which he fulfilled them outside of his marriage. It also makes clear that King was dishonest in telling the FBI he no longer had contact with his good friend Levison. To help pictorialize the history, Pollard uses clips from old movies -- The FBI Story, Walk a Crooked Mile, I Was a Communist for the FBI -- but fortunately these are limited in both number and the time spent on each.

Pollard doesn't much explore J. Edgar Hoover's rumored sexual proclivities, either, though he does note how Hoover's FBI seemed to be made of mostly hunky, young white men of the sort that the Director keenly appreciated.

What's best about MLK/FBI is the deeper look it gives us of King himself, via his ideas, speeches, interviews and the like. Details such as the plane flight on which he picked up a number of current magazines to read and was so moved and chastened by the photo essay in Ramparts magazine that showed the results of our military's napalm bombing on Vietnamese children that he immediately went back to heavily criticizing our role in Vietnam. This resulted in the worst press coverage he had yet received, as well as anger from not only his enemies but many of his black friends and supporters.

Watching interviews by the press of some of those folk who hated King and their talk of how the man had "attended Communist Training School" will put you in mind of today's QAnon conspiracy nuts and how so little in some ways -- given even the Internet -- seems to have changed over more than half a century. Learning of black FBI informants among King's closest allies and workers (the fine photographer Ernest Withers was one of these) will also give you proper pause.

From IFC Films and running 105 minutes, MLK/FBI opens in select theaters, digitally and on cable VOD this Friday, January 15. It is definitely worth a watch -- even if it's not quite yet the definitive version of history. Click here for more information on the film and how to view it.

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