In time for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday comes this marginally important, if mostly pedestrian, documentary from director Sam Pollard (The Talk: Race in America, 2017). It centers on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s malignant and downright creepy obsession with the great American orator and patron saint of the civil rights movement.
MLK/FBI also spends a chunk of time on things (which many already know) that made King human and not a saint. It strangely agrees, in that way, with Hoover’s belief that MLK’s extramarital affairs are something of great interest. Pollard does include interviews with scholars and veterans of the movement who state that King’s philandering does not, in their minds, change or irretrievably taint the man’s legacy.
The film’s greatest weakness lies in its reliance on footage that is by now cliche in this genre. Pollard augments the familiar, yet beautifully restored, archival photography with clips from various then-contemporary “G-Men” movies. These semi-humorous clips neither offer true comic relief nor fit well with the overall tone.
Pollard’s perspective in the proceedings is unclear. He seems to miss important details, like King’s bigger vision in the speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” here presented as strictly an anti-war lecture. At the same time, the director fails to present the voices of the anti-war movement, thus tacitly endorsing the horrific blowback MLK received after his speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before he was assassinated. The viewer is left wishing the film had addressed how misled Dr. King’s war-hungry detractors were and how terribly misunderstood “Beyond Vietnam” was at the time—perhaps still is.
In that speech and elsewhere, MLK offered a grand vision for America and it’s one that’s worth revisiting for its timeliness right now. Perhaps like nothing else, King’s vision helps put BLM in perspective. Black lives matter as much as White lives, he might say. His edict of nonviolence would contrast starkly with the violent, authoritarian attack on the Capitol. Beyond that, his was a vision that America still cannot afford to ignore.
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