J. Edgar Hoover was no fan of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Where others saw the leader for racial equality, Hoover saw a communist on U.S. soil. They saw a preacher professing non-violence, but Hoover saw a sexual deviant. And where many saw the promise of a new America, Hoover saw a threat to national security.

And, as Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI shows, Hoover did just about everything in his power to discredit and defame King. Since Hoover was the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his power came with an awful lot of reach and resources.

Composed of recently declassified federal transcripts obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unsealed by the National Archive, archival footage, and audio interviews with scholars, Pollard shows how the bureau, under the direction of Hoover, monitored King following the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/56 until his assassination in 1968.

The FBI’s initial goal: Connect King better with his friend and advisor, Stanley D. Levinson, a progressive Jewish businessman and lawyer, and a former Communist sympathizer. But King had many advisors and friends, including President John F. Kennedy. When they suggested King distance himself from Levinson—despite Levinson not having any dealings with the Communist Party USA post-’57—the connection proved fruitless.

Images courtesy IFC Films.

Not that it mattered, Hoover and his agents had stumbled onto something far more salacious: King’s sex life. Just the sort of thing Hoover could seize upon and use to discredit King and the movement he commanded.

By the look of things in MLK/FBI, the bureau spared no expense or man-hours trying to figure out what was going on behind King’s closed doors. And their methods were anything but secret. Movies like The FBI Story and its spin-off TV show, The F.B.I., popularized the agency’s technology, and practices. Pollard weaves footage from these and more into his narrative—as well as depictions of Black men in early cinema to illustrate why Hoover thought using King’s sexual nature against him would have a popular reception. 

As former FBI director James Comey says in the doc, this period of surveillance “Represents the darkest part of the bureau’s history.” As for Hoover’s defense, we’ll have to wait for 2027, as the recordings themselves are still classified.

And with no audio to draw on, only transcripts, Pollard lets the archival footage bolster the stream of voices providing commentary while using the documents themselves to ground the argument. Then, with five minutes left in the movie, Pollard lifts the curtain, revealing the faces behind the voices, and provides their credentials. It’s an effective way to engage the audience first through image, then through argument. And MLK/FBI is the start of a great argument.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

MLK/FBI (2020)
Directed by Sam Pollard
Written by Benjamin Hedin, Laura Tomaselli
Produced by Benjamin Hedin
IFC Films, Not rated, Running time 104 minutes, Opens Jan. 15, 2021, in select theaters and Video on Demand.