Documentary about J. Edgar Hoover spying on Martin Luther King Jr. refuses to fully go there
I saw the MLK/FBI Movie. MLK/FBI tells the story of how J. Edgar Hoover, the all-powerful director of the FBI for nearly 50 years, stalked and tried to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for more than a decade. At first, the documentary posits, it was just pro forma intelligence gathering. Then it broadened because one of King’s close associates had Communist ties. At a certain point, though, it became clear that Dr. King, the moral leader of the nation, was also a serial philanderer. J. Edgar Hoover either found this repulsive, politically convenient, or both. So he ratcheted up the wire-tapping, and found even more “evidence” of King’s depravity.
MLK/FBI ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Sam Pollard
Running time: 104 min
We knew all of this before, though maybe that’s not what they teach kids about MLK in virtual school. Our basic understanding of MLK focuses on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the March on Washington, and King’s assassination in Memphis. MLK/FBI focuses a great deal of its attention on the period between 1963 to 1968, when the U.S. government increasingly began to consider MLK an enemy of the state.
The FBI turned the screws on Dr. King, sending him threatening letters and trying to throw him off-kilter. When he began to speak out against the war in Vietnam, and then broadened his civil-rights focus to include all poor people, not just Black ones, the establishment ceased to embrace him. MLK/FBI makes the point, quite strongly, that the majority of Americans supported J. Edgar Hoover, not MLK. Today, only one of them has a holiday. But back when he was alive, many people had no problem with the government trying to stop America’s Gandhi in his tracks.
But even though MLK/FBI offers a incendiary take on what people often consider a kumbaya moment in American history, it still comes off as just a slightly-more-radical-than-usual PBS offering. It has all the transcripts available of Dr. King’s hotel room liaisons, but chooses instead to put them into a larger political and sociological context instead of offering up at least a little juicy gossip. The movie’s talking heads repeatedly say that Dr. King’s private life shouldn’t affect how we see him as a symbol and political leader. While this is true, come on. Give us something. At one point, snippets of the documents flash past. You have to really be looking to see the words “sexual orgy” and “urination.”
You mean to tell us that there’s audio evidence of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. orgy? That there’s an MLK pee tape? I mean, my God.
The talking heads say that J. Edgar Hoover found MLK’s sexuality “threatening” and subversive. Maybe that’s true. And then it shows a few shots of Hoover sitting at baseball games and the like with another man, presumably his deputy Clyde Tolson. Hoover’s sexuality has long been the subject of speculation. Clint Eastwood even made a movie about it. MLK/FBI more than implies that the entire civil-rights movement may have hung in the balance of one man kink-shaming another. But it pulls back from that in time to show a long, and kind of boring, clip of MLK talking about human rights on the Mike Douglas Show. There’s time enough in the movie to cover Dr. King’s opposition to Vietnam. But don’t deny us the juice!
King’s assassination is another weird moment in the movie. The FBI followed MLK everywhere, conspiring with hotel clerks and managers to assign him certain rooms so they could monitor him. The movie posits that there’s no way they couldn’t have known about James Earl Ray at the Lorraine motel in Memphis. MLK/FBI avoids the contemporary documentary cliché of occupying screen time with talking heads. Instead, they have their talking heads speak over footage, with the name of the speaker in the bottom-left corner of the screen. James Comey even pops up as part of his relentless self-rehabilitation tour. Then, at one point during the assassination sequence, a talking head says, “there’s no way that James Earl Ray killed Dr. King”, or something close to that.
Record scratch. For the only time in the movie, they don’t label that talking head. All film long, the directors attribute quotes, but then they treat the most controversial implication like some sort of anonymous Twitter comment. Suddenly this documentary enters peak Oliver Stone paranoia territory. I’m fully ready to hear evidence that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI conspired to murder Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s not even remotely out of the question. But if you’re going to offer up a tasty tidbit like that, then follow up, please!
MLK/FBI ends by saying that the FBI’s recordings will become public domain in 2027, and it almost pleads with people not to listen to them to tarnish MLK’s legacy. And that just leaves me thinking, again, what’s in those recordings? We don’t need MLK to be a saint to follow his example of nonviolent protest as the best path for social change. But if you’re going to make a documentary about the FBI spying on Martin Luther King, why leave the tastiest bits on the cutting room floor?
This concludes my review of the MLK/FBI movie.