MLK/FBI

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
MLK/FBI Movie Poster Image
Insightful doc about FBI's relentless campaign against King.
  • NR
  • 2021
  • 104 minutes

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Positive Messages

King's causes are equality, justice, and the greater good -- for Americans to acknowledge the systemic racial injustice around them and stand up to it. The film argues that, instead of concentrating on King's private affairs, it's important to understand why the FBI's state-sponsored surveillance was unlawful and politically motivated. The movie highlights King's empathy and perseverance in the face of threats against his life ... as well as the perseverance and determination of the FBI agents who are out to "get" him (which isn't positive, but is still obvious).

Positive Role Models & Representations

King dedicated his life to pursuing the causes of justice, racial equality, and economic determination for all disenfranchised people, in particular the Black community in the United States. He saw the value in peaceful, nonviolent protest and in rallying individuals to make their voices heard. But as the documentary (and other sources) point out, he was unfaithful to his wife (it's unclear whether they had an open marriage) on many occasions, which he obviously kept private (although not from the FBI, which was monitoring his every move).

Violence

Archival footage of bloodied and beaten Civil Rights marchers during protests. Photos of the day King was assassinated. Images of his shooter being arrested. Disturbing footage of White actors in blackface in early films and recordings -- all of the characters they play are portrayed as lazy, deceitful, or obsessed with conquering White women. Mention of various assassinations and acts of violence against Civil Rights protestors/activists.

Sex

Discussion of extramarital affairs and vague lewd, immoral, acts, as well as briefly shown words from a report that include references to sexual positions, "unnatural acts," and more.

Language

Racist/outdated terms for Black activists -- mostly "Negro," but also coded slurs such as "uppity," "bossy," "commie"/"communist," "liar," and more.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The reports mention King's drinking or being around people who are drinking/drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that MLK/FBI is an insightful documentary about how J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation went after Martin Luther King Jr. in hopes of diminishing his status as the United States' foremost Black activist during the Civil Rights Era. The film uses interviews with biographers, historians, FBI agents, and activists as narration to accompany archival footage (the speakers aren't shown until the credits sequence). It captures King's perseverance and empathy and argues that the FBI began surveilling him because of his friendship with a former communist, Stanley Levison -- and then continued monitoring him excessively out of a desire to document and publicize his sexual indiscretions. The documentary discusses mature/sensitive subjects, including King's personal life (he reportedly was a serial adulterer), "sexual proclivities," the historical context of over-sexualizing Black men, the racis/tsegregationist attitudes of Whites in the 1950s and '60s, and the manner in which government officials were determined to destroy King's reputation. All of that makes it best suited for teens who can have frank discussions about the allegations.

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What's the story?

Award-winning director/producer Sam Pollard's documentary MLK/FBI is a chronicle of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, followed, wiretapped, and bugged the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why? In hopes of ruining King's reputation, destroying his life, discrediting the Civil Rights movement, and even blackmailing him to end his life. Pollard's interview subjects include King's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, David Garrow, who unearthed a lot of the controversial FBI reports via declassified documents concerning President John F. Kennedy; historians Beverly Gage and Donna Murch; former FBI director James Comey; and former agent Charles Knox; as well as King's personal friend/fellow activist Clarence Jones. Their comments are used as narration to accompany archival footage of the Civil Rights era, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the FBI, and more. They discuss how Hoover's obsession with surveilling King -- whom he once called a "notorious liar" -- is a dark stain on the history of the FBI. 

Is it any good?

This documentary is a powerful reminder of how the FBI allowed racism and fear to guide its decision to follow and terrorize Martin Luther King Jr. The film's revelations, while startling, aren't necessarily new -- particularly regarding the legendary pastor-turned-activist's history of infidelity while married to Coretta Scott King. Pollard manages to keep the content frank but not salacious. The scholars he interviews point out that the reports on the FBI's audio tapes (which are sealed in the National Archives until 2027) can't be fully trusted because of the agency's agenda to discredit King. But some interviewees do allow that the reports could turn out to be more exaggerated than fully false. Historians (and the public) won't know until the hours of recordings are released. MLK/FBI itself doesn't include any overtly graphic details, although there are brief glimpses of the myriad FBI reports, as well as the infamous letter the FBI sent to the King encouraging him to kill himself. The most disturbing aspect of the package the letter came in isn't that it contained a recording of two people having sex (allegedly King and a mistress), but that the letter claimed to be from a Black follower of the Civil Rights movement (when, in fact, it was written by Hoover's deputy, Bill Sullivan).

Pollard does an excellent job of contextualizing Hoover's determination to ruin King's life and legacy: His crusade was rooted in paternalism, institutional racism, and fear of both King's connections to White liberals (one of whom previously had ties to the Communist Party) and the fact that he was seen as a charismatic "Black Messiah" and heralded as the United States' moral conscience. Hoover isn't excused for the FBI's actions, but the interviewed scholars make it clear that he didn't act in a vacuum: He was backed by the administrations of two presidents (and two progressive presidents at that). The film also doesn't shy away from exploring how the White community's fear of Black men's sexuality played a role in the FBI's determination to observe and report every detail of King's private life. The academics Pollard talks to question the truth of some of the reports, since it can be difficult to determine exactly what's happening in audio recordings. Ultimately, this revelatory documentary is a thought-provoking reminder to consider the humanity of our role models and heroes -- and to discuss how King's legacy can endure despite his apparent marital misconduct. The film's core message is that instead of concentrating on King's private affairs, it's important to understand why the FBI's state-sponsored surveillance was unlawful and politically motivated.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the character strengths King displayed as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. How was perseverance important to King -- and the entire movement?

  • Does King's reported infidelity tarnish his historic legacy? What does Clarence Jones mean when he says that whatever is found on the FBI tapes doesn't take away from King's achievements?

  • Why do the historians interviewd in MLK/FBI claim that the FBI's reports should be viewed as suspicious? How does race play a role in Hoover and the FBI's obsessive surveilling of King?

  • Do you think the FBI should release the recordings in 2027, or should they continue to be sealed? 

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