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#TIFF20 Review: MLK/FBI (TIFF Docs)

September 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Sam Pollard, the extensively researched documentary MLK/FBI sheds light on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive quest to take down Martin Luther King Jr., viewing the non-violent civil rights leader as a threat to the national order.

Using the powers afforded to him at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover launched an advanced surveillance campaign against King, with the blessing of the Johnson administration. Through tapped phone lines, recording devices planted in hotel rooms, and men who were employed to secretly take photographs of him, the FBI successfully tracked King’s movements for several years before he was killed in 1968.

At first, the Bureau was trying to pin down connections to communism through King’s friend and advisor Stanley Levison. But they eventually focused their attention on the extramarital affairs that King was having, in an attempt to mount a character assassination campaign against the Nobel Peace Prize recipient. It’s fascinating to note that, as we are told in the film, Hoover was the more widely beloved figure in the country at the time while King was considered to be polarizing, opinions that have almost entirely flipped around in hindsight.

Pollard explores the intertwining histories of Hoover and King through voiceover interviews with subjects including David Garrow, whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis provides the basis for the documentary. We also hear from King’s speechwriter Clarence B. Jones and fellow civil rights leader Andrew Young, who both bring fascinating insights to the film through their lived experience.

Keeping his subjects offscreen until the end, Pollard employs a mostly black and white visual aesthetic made up of archival footage from the 1950s and ’60s. The director also works in clips from films that were made about the FBI, including 1959’s The FBI Story, which helped sway public opinion in their favour. This is a dense film that offers a lot of information to take in, but it’s also a very interesting and important one. As an exploration of the surveillance state, and the use of informants being sent in to infiltrate social movements, MLK/FBI also has a lot of relevance to the modern age.

Public Screenings:

Tuesday, September 15th – 5:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Tuesday, September 15th – 5:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Tuesday, September 15th – 6:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

Friday, September 18th – 4:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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