1960s America is a time synonymous with change. The counterculture and social movements that have come to define this era were a foil to the previous decade’s post-war suburbia. At the forefront of this period stood Dr Martin King Jr: the revolutionary, Nobel Prize-winning figure who helped provide Black Americans with civil rights after centuries of oppression.
However, this rose-coloured version of the past is only part of the story. After the declassification of archived FBI documents, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Polland (4 Little Girls) brings to light the tense conflict between King and the US government that permeated throughout the Civil Rights Movement. The bureau – spearheaded by the intelligence agency’s founder J Edgar Hoover – used every dirty trick they could to turn America’s idea of the minister from a beloved leader into a public enemy.
Using archival footage alongside snippets of interviews and recently unearthed phone calls to weave the complex drama, Polland meticulously outlines and deconstructs the numerous social and historical factors that have a part to play in this tale. The director does a commendable job of condensing decades of America’s past and delivering it in an insightful manner, depicting how Hoover manipulated public perception of the FBI, the Red Scare of the Cold War, as well as past racial experiences and realities. Likewise, these frequently shocking revelations are rendered more poignant as they are interspersed between scenes of landmark moments – such as King’s marches on Selma and Washington – which consequently frame these events in a different perspective.
With so much groundwork to cover, though, it takes a substantial amount of time for the documentary to get to the meat of the matter. Without as much as pausing to catch its breath, the first portion of this project feels like the audience is being rushed through an introductory lecture about the momentous period before the main feature can begin. Though no section of the runtime can be described as dull, including some of the intrigue of the second half earlier could have made for a more even viewing experience.
MLK/FBI reveals a part of substantial history that has been kept secret for decades, serving as a reminder of how easily past narratives can be controlled by their authors. By ending on a thoughtful conclusion that resonates eerily well with the current times, the film suggests that it’s possible there’s still more to this story yet to be uncovered.
MLK/FBI is released digitally on demand on 15th January 2021.
Watch the trailer for MLK/FBI here: