MLK/FBI — documentary concerning the civil rights chief has a wider story to inform

On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people from the United States came to the country’s capital to celebrate the official March on Washington for Work and Freedom. There, unassaulted in the Capitol, Martin Luther King told the crowd that he had a dream. The scene takes place at the beginning of the rich new documentary MLK / FBI. At this point, a year had passed since the man, introduced by the FBI as the “moral leader of our nation,” had been identified by the FBI as a threat to American society.

Director Sam Pollard turns the screen into a pure archive zone to relate the hunt for King and the animus of J. Edgar Hoover. Contemporary voices tell stories – including King’s advisor Clarence Jones – but we’re deep in the belly of the past. The era is turbulent, telephones tapped and hotels tapped a rare constant. Pollard doesn’t care about her revelations. He is open about suspected sexual matters while coolly recording the office’s behavior, including the anonymous letter to Coretta Scott King, a tape with a message to her husband, “There is only one way out for you.”

The film subtly expands its gaze: sidebars deal with the question of how black protest became synonymous with riot and Hoover’s domination of pop culture. But when Hollywood presented the FBI the way Hoover wanted it to be, Pollard shed light on another story modern America tells about its past. Hoover finds it cast as villainously grotesque.

In fact, the film argues, he was the voice of Main Street. Hoover is believed to have called King the “most notorious liar” in the country, and a 1964 opinion poll found that half the US public agreed. As the film dryly points out, it’s the kind of detail history forgets, but an important one in an America that is still seemingly surprised by its own body politics.

★★★★ ☆

Available on request in the UK from January 15th

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