by director Sam Pollard and producer Benjamin Hedin
The earliest days of MLK/FBI can be traced to January of 2017, the month of Trump’s inauguration, and the month when Colin Kaepernick played his last NFL game. Both of us were astonished by the backlash directed at Kaepernick, and we began plotting a film that would uncover the history of white America’s fear of Black protest. There could be no better point-of-entry, we thought, than the lives of J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, two iconic figures of American history who did so much to shape their times.
Under Hoover, the FBI surveilled many activists and political figures. But their pursuit of King was unique. Though every part of his life was monitored—for the last five years of his life King essentially lived without the notion of privacy—the campaign went far beyond surveillance. It was an attempt at public humiliation. At the outset of MLK/FBI James Comey rightly calls this “the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.”
Many movies have been made about King, and about the heroic phase of the civil rights struggle. We wanted this one to be different. From the beginning we experimented with not showing any of the interviewees on screen, but unspooling a continuous mélange of archival footage, comprised of outtakes from old newsreels, press conferences and propaganda films that glorified the G-Men of Hoover’s reign. We hoped the viewer would feel as though they were eavesdropping on a learned and intimate conversation. In this we were aided by two exemplary filmmakers: editor and writer Laura Tomaselli, and Archival Producer Brian Becker.
Yet the challenges of the film went beyond those of crafting a fresh visual tapestry, for in highlighting the intelligence the Bureau gathered on King, one inevitably risks becoming an unwitting accomplice of the FBI. Hoover may be dead, but his mission is not, not if the next trove of declassified files serves to undermine the reputation of King or impugn his message of nonviolence and racial unity.
As David Garrow, King’s first biographer, says in the movie, “When the National Archives puts government documents on the web, one has to confront them.” And finally we decided that the best defense against the Bureau could be mounted by King himself—by his oratory, several stunning examples of which appear in the film, and by the arresting power of his moral vision, which speaks to us with such resonance and pathos today. The King on view here is one infinitely more interesting than the bloodless saint saluted now by politicians on both sides of the aisle: flawed and fallible and human—and trying to hold up against smear tactics waged by the top law enforcement agency of the United States. The film reminds us that civil disobedience and moral prophecy, so valued in retrospect, are first to be seen as disreputable and menacing.
At bottom, the contest between King and Hoover represents a contrast in visions of what America should be, and what freedom means. On behalf of IFC and all of us who made the film, we would like to thank Landmark Theaters for showcasing the documentary during this important time, and we hope you enjoy MLK/FBI.