In some ways, “MLK/FBI,” Sam Pollard’s new documentary, tells a straightforward story suggested by the title. Drawing on long-secret documents — and anticipating the eventual release of recordings held in the National Archives — the film chronicles the F.B.I.’s surveillance and harassment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From the March on Washington in August 1963 until his assassination in April 1968, King was a subject of almost obsessive interest to the bureau and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. Reams of paper, miles of audio tape and countless hours were spent tracking the civil rights leader’s every action and utterance. Hoover viewed him as a singular threat to national security and was determined to diminish his influence.
That much — including wiretaps and bugs in hotel rooms — is fairly well known. But Pollard, drawing on David J. Garrow’s controversial book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” layers startling details about Hoover’s campaign against King with thoughtful interpretations of its meaning. The result is at once suspenseful, visually engrossing and intellectually bracing. It also raises urgent, sometimes uncomfortable questions about power, privacy and the ethical challenges of examining the past.
Those challenges are signaled at the outset, as Garrow and other scholars — notably Beverly Gage of Yale and Donna Murch of Rutgers — ponder the status of the F.B.I. tapes, in particular those that reveal King’s sex life, as historical evidence. The recordings won’t be available until 2027, but they are generally believed to document frequent infidelities. Can the tapes be trusted? How will their contents affect King’s reputation? The answers offered by the experts are nuanced and cautious, with some — including former F.B.I. officials — arguing that it would be better if the tapes remained unheard.
That’s an argument for the present and the future, about what we should know and how we should handle that knowledge. In a sense, the main work Pollard and his sources undertake is to establish a context for those debates. The voices he gathers are not always in agreement, either about facts or about meaning. Much remains to be discovered and disputed. By entwining the histories of law enforcement, activism and institutional politics, “MLK/FBI” provides new ways of looking at what might seem like old news.
“Looking” is the key word. Pollard, whose long résumé as a producer, editor and director includes “Two Trains Running,” “4 Little Girls” and “Eyes on the Prize,” balances the prose of historical discourse with cinematic poetry. Rather than subject the viewer to talking-head interviews, he matches the thoughts of scholars and the reminiscences of survivors with news footage, still photographs and occasional clips from old movies. The speakers, who include King’s close associates Clarence Jones and Andrew Young as well as Garrow, Murch and Gage, don’t turn up onscreen until the very end. They are narrators rather than characters.
That simple decision focuses attention on the actual players, who come to dramatic life through Pollard’s artful direction. Hoover and King are hardly obscure figures — a lot of movies have been made about both of them — but you understand each one a little better when you look at them side by side. You’re reminded of how deeply entrenched Hoover was in the American government, and how much power he wielded, but you also observe a man consumed perhaps as much by fear as by ambition or Machiavellian calculation. To him, King represented disorder, communism, the disruption of racial hierarchies and sexual norms.
King, for his part, emerges as a young leader — he was 26 at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, 35 when he won the Nobel Prize, 39 when he died — fighting a risky battle on multiple fronts. Hoover’s surveillance was intended to ensure King’s failure, and at the time, white public opinion favored Hoover. It shouldn’t be forgotten that King was met with suspicion and hostility — even from ostensibly liberal leaders and commentators — especially after he publicly opposed the Vietnam War. The FBI, for its part, was widely viewed with reverence.
“MLK/FBI” is fair to all parties without being neutral or timid. In that regard, it’s an exemplary historical documentary — unafraid of moral judgment but also attentive to the fine grain of ambiguity that clings to the facts. It doesn’t force the preoccupations of the present onto the past, but rather invites you to think about how what happened then might help explain where we are now. The story took place a long time ago, but it isn’t finished.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.