MLK/FBI review – state-sanctioned harassment of a hero

Simran Hans
·1 min read
<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Sam Pollard’s archive documentary cleverly uses the FBI’s pursuit of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr to tell the entwined history of leftwing protest and state-sanctioned surveillance. Former FBI director J Edgar Hoover feared “the rise of a black messiah” would disrupt the segregated status quo, and so set out to use information about King’s private life, such as his extramarital affairs, to discredit his public persona. Pollard includes clips from movies such as Big Jim McLain and The FBI Story to show how the bureau infiltrated pop culture to cultivate an image of itself as “reasonable, sane and patriotic”. MLK/FBI reframes this as propaganda, and shows how King’s antiracist project was viewed as anti-American political dissent.

Related: ‘It took its toll’: the terrible legacy of Martin Luther King’s fight with the FBI

Pollard’s decision to eschew traditional talking heads in favour of voiceover interviews allows the archive to take centre stage. The director first looked at King in an episode of PBS’s Peabody award-winning Eyes on the Prize II in 1990. Thirty years later, his life remains rich terrain for Pollard, who is keen to consider him as a complicated and fallible man rather than an untouchable icon.

MLK/FBI is available on multiple VOD platforms