Review by Sean Boelman
Although we would like to think we know everything there is to know about the past, there are some things that have embarrassingly been kept secret. Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI attempts to fill in some of the blindspots regarding the eponymous civil rights icon to disturbing and distressing effect.
In the film, Pollard uses recently declassified files to explore the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Era. And although most viewers will likely know that the activist faced plenty of opposition in his time, the role that our own government played in the situation is pretty shocking.
Some of the movie plays out in a bit of a paranoid way, never crossing the line into conspiracy theory, but still a bit too on-the-edge to be easily embraced. Other portions, especially those which use hard evidence as opposed to secondhand to back them up, are riveting and create a real-life spy thriller.
Pollard obviously has a great deal of respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. for the enormous contributions he made to make the United States a safer place for people of color. But there’s more to the story than the history books say, some of which isn’t particularly flattering to him, and even more that isn’t flattering to the American government.
The film really questions the ethics of government surveillance. The public has and had a particular image of King, and while some of his actions ran counter to these ideas, is it really the public’s business to judge him based on his personal life? And even more pressing, is it within the government’s rights to manipulate someone based on these actions?
It’s obviously frustrating to think that this man who is now considered to be among the most influential people in all of history was once seen as a troublemaker, but it’s outright horrifying to think that our government would do this. And given recent events in which people are speaking out (for good reason), it brings to question the entire institution of American democracy.
Pollard had some phenomenal access to archive materials to construct his movie to go along with the revelatory information he was able to get his hands on. He edits the film in a way that is thrilling and suspenseful. And to supplement the archive footage that tells the story visually, he uses contemporary interviews with various experts and historians that are quite interesting.
MLK/FBI is a documentary that manages to be both extremely exciting and unsettlingly informative. And in a few years when even more information about these events becomes declassified, audiences should be prepared to be even more disgusted.
MLK/FBI screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.