‘MLK/FBI’ Is A Glorious Reminder That History Is Always Ongoing (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: B+

Our interactions with the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as much as he’s revered in our culture, tend to skim the surface. We’re taught that he organized a boycott, gave some speeches, organized some marches, and changed the world before being assassinated. Our history classes so rarely go deeper than this and, to hear public school textbooks tell it, there’s not much more to tell.

The reality is that these shallow retellings of MLK’s rise as America’s leading civil rights figure belie the real truth of his fight for recognition and equality. The stories we tell ourselves about his struggle for freedom and rights ignore the deeper struggles that we have only just recently started to understand in the mainstream. As the most prominent voice in the civil rights movement, a target was placed on his back by none other than Mr. G-Man himself, J. Edgar Hoover.

A new documentary from filmmaker Sam Pollard, MLK/FBI, takes us deep inside the paranoid world of America’s former top lawman and his quest to disrupt and silence the man whose life we celebrate this Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday. While students of history might recognize that none of the information provided in the film is at all new, rarely as a film positioned itself as a central repository of knowledge with the confidence and capability as MLK/FBI.

As the film tells us early on, we like stories where bad guys get theirs and good guys succeed; this story, however, hasn’t finished yet. The struggles of Dr. King are far from over and, now more than ever, it’s important to remember that his famous dream is an ongoing exercise that we haven’t gotten close to achieving.

Following Dr. King’s rise to fame as leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, MLK/FBI explores the civil rights hero not just from the lends of his impact on the movement, but also from the lens of law enforcement and the status quo. For them, Dr. King was emblematic of turmoil and strife. Such as it always is with those who strive to upend tradition and belief. Pollard, pulling from a wide range of historical records, history experts, and first hand witnesses, paints a portrait of a man and a movement beset by attempts to infiltrate and discredit the man we now revere as one of our nation’s greatest.

Perhaps this is the most important takeaway from MLK/FBI. At several points throughout the film we’re reminded that upwards of 50% of the country, at least, held negative views of Dr. King and the movement he was spearheading. Much of this was fueled by disinformation campaigns spearheaded by Hoover and his lieutenants. It should sound familiar. Allegations of communism and unamerican activities rippled through the country, stemming from precise and incomplete leaks orchestrated by the FBI. At one memorable moment, a woman being interviewed by a newsman of the era spares asserts her certainty that MLK is a communist. Her proof? It’s what she heard, and she has the spurious article to prove it.

It’s easy for us to blame the internet for so much of the dis/misinformation flooding our discourse today—and certainly, it shares some blame—but it’s important to be reminded that these aren’t new tactics. This has long been the playbook for those seeking to discredit leaders who might just make some change. In MLK’s case, as it is today, the disinformation came from the highest offices, all filled by people deathly afraid of making meaningful change.

That’s just as important to reflect upon as any other piece of MLK’s legacy. The struggle for change takes place in the mind as much as it does in the streets, and often times the mind war is more insidious than anywhere else. MLK/FBI reveals the dirty secrets and tricks used by the American status quo in an attempt to sway opinion and discredit the man who would lead the march for freedom and it does so in a way that’s easy to understand.

But, as Dr. King taught us, and still teaches us today, hope and love are our greatest weapons. History has a way of exalting those who deserve it, never mind what the present has to say. The legacy of Dr. King, the legacy that’s still being fought for to this day, is ultimately one of hope and triumph. His complexities as a man never negate his power as a leader, a reality that Pollard has captured well in MLK/FBI.

MLK/FBI is now available on demand.

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