By Bradley Lane
Director Sam Pollard is a prolific documentarian and editor working primarily to highlight Black American history. He has worked as editor and producer on narrative films with Spike Lee. He is also responsible for films about prominent Black Americans like Sammy Davis Jr., Ellis Haizlip and August Wilson. But his latest film “MLK/FBI” is his most ambitious work to date, a piece of filmmaking that functions as both a historical document itself and a plea to add nuance to America’s relationship with the Civil Rights movements.
As suggested by the title, the film’s foundational element is exploring the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s relationship to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. It details the FBI’s immoral and illegal surveillance and harassment of MLK to prevent the Black population of America from upsetting the status quo of the time. The examination of the FBI’s actions throughout the film is excellently contextualized by leading scholars and historians to create a nuanced, if not slightly dull, filmgoing experience.
“MLK/FBI” is by no means a straight-forward condemnation of the FBI and an attempt to put MLK even higher on a pedestal. Instead, the film plainly explains the context surrounding the actions of the FBI and uses that information to let viewers come to their conclusions. In this way, the film becomes a historical document by combining newly released information about the FBI investigations into King with pre-existing information from King’s inner circle.
However, given the heinous action taken by the FBI to undermine both King personally and the Civil Rights movement generally, audiences will more than likely come away with mixed feelings about how to feel.
King was a human, a visionary leader and an all-time great public speaker, but he was also a human, flawed, and vulnerable like the rest of us. Against him is a government agency utilizing unfathomable amounts of taxpayer money to disenfranchise oppressed people in the United States.
Unfortunately, the film runs a little long for the quantity of information it has to offer and because of that, the most profound and impactful moments fall near the beginning and end of the film. Despite minor pacing issues, “MLK/FBI” is well worth your time and contemplation.