Critics Pick

‘MLK/FBI’ Review: An Incendiary Documentary About the FBI’s Surveillance of the Secret Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Sam Pollard's film doesn't attempt to come to terms with the great Civil Rights leader's private life, but it vividly captures how the FBI used it to try to destroy him.

MLK FBI Toronto Film Festival
Courtesy of TIFF

At a moment when the personal lives of artists and celebrities are being placed under the spotlight as almost never before, the secret life of Martin Luther King Jr. now seems like more than the disquieting semi-submerged footnote it once did. It’s long been public knowledge that King, during most of the time of his leadership (which began in 1955, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended with his death, on April 4, 1968), had many adulterous affairs, and that the FBI, starting in 1963, put him under surveillance, surreptitiously recording hours and hours of King with his mistresses and other women in hotel rooms. How does this reality affect our perception of King’s greatness as a leader?

I expected that might be the subject of “MLK/FBI,” a tensely absorbing documentary about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under J. Edgar Hoover, came to see itself as part of an establishment war against King, one that wound up being waged with the cooperation of American leaders, notably Attorney General Robert. F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. (The Kennedys were allies of King and the Civil Rights movement, but it was Bobby Kennedy who first approved the use of FBI wiretaps on King.)

It’s no accident that the FBI recorded King in these sordid situations. By exposing the hidden side of King, the organization hoped to humiliate him and weaken his authority as a leader. Yet early on in the documentary, the historian Beverly Gage acknowledges that “when you construct a man as a great man, there’s nothing almost more satisfying than also seeing him represented as the opposite.” Gage is staunchly on King’s side, but what she’s evoking is a certain side of human nature — the part of us that wants to see that a saint isn’t really a saint, that even the greatest among us are as flawed as we are. Her comment expresses, with a fair degree of honesty, the voyeuristic element that’s embedded in the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. Watching “MLK/FBI,” what we want is to know more — of what happened, and of what King’s life was about.

In many ways, however, the movie presents us with a limited version of more. You won’t hear a moment of what’s on those tapes; in 1977, a federal court order placed them in a vault in the National Archives, where they’ll remain under seal until February 2027. And the film, which is based on the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” offers little in the way of speculation as to how the knowledge of what’s on those tapes changes our perception of King as a leader and as a human being. (The only comments about that come during the closing credits.) That subject could use a full-on discussion — and, it fact, demands one. The documentary that looks at Martin Luther King Jr. in his warts-and-all complexity has yet to be made.

Yet “MLK/FBI” does something of incendiary fascination and value. It gives us an interior look at how the FBI operated — not just what the organization did but why, and how it was rooted in the G-man mythology. And in a crucial way, the film does bring us closer to King. Using an enthralling array of candid photographs and film footage, it captures what he was going through, and how the surveillance turned up the heat on what was already his pressure cooker of an existence. It’s astounding that he didn’t crack.

It’s also astounding that the news of his indiscretions never broke. The FBI sought to make public knowledge of King’s secret life, and to do so the Bureau distributed copies of the King tapes to church leaders and media outlets. In the media culture of today (the one we began to shift into around the time of the Gary Hart adultery scandal, in 1988), it’s unthinkable that a story like this one could ever have been kept under wraps. But back then it was considered off limits, and the media powers that be had an interest in protecting King. They were on his side, and weren’t about to blow a hole in the Civil Rights movement by printing the FBI’s dirt.

Sam Pollard, the director of “MLK/FBI,” is a veteran producer and filmmaker who co-directed two episodes of “Eyes on the Prize,” and he sets this saga within a close-up, flowing portrait of King in history. King had risen, almost overnight, to the status of American rebel-hero, and by the time of the March on Washington, which was built around King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the establishment had come to fear his power. The March took place on Aug. 28, 1963, and two days later, in a memo dated Aug. 30, William C. Sullivan, the head of FBI domestic intelligence, wrote, “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

One of King’s close advisors was Stanley Levison, a white Jewish lawyer and CPA who had a history of association with Communist groups. The FBI, still embroiled in the war against Communism, saw the presence of Levison as a red flag, a sign that the Communist menace was embedded in the struggle for Civil Rights. We see a fascinating clip of King, in a television interview with Dan Rather, saying that he thinks it’s one of the miracles of the 20th century that so few African-Americans have turned to Communism, given their history of desperation and oppression. But King, invited to the White House, was personally told by JFK that he needed to distance himself from Levison. Instead, King maintained the association and lied about it. This incensed the administration, and it’s why RFK, in 1963, approved the FBI use of wiretaps against King.

Wiretapping means infiltrating phone lines, but then something happened that was more or less a coincidence. The FBI, in its surveillance plot against King, had arranged to tap the phone of Clarence Jones, who was King’s close friend and speech writer. King was staying over at Jones’ house for a couple of days, and it was during that time that the FBI learned, through sheer happenstance, that King was not monogamous.

The Bureau, at that point, made the scurrilous decision to target King’s extramarital life, which they did by arranging, through their contacts, to bug his hotel rooms. (Pollard visualizes all of this with graphic spy-movie elegance, showing us, for instance, the image of a tiny microphone implanted at the top of a lamp.) King traveled constantly, and by the time he would show up at his room in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., the room had been completely bugged. The FBI also used informants who were African-American. Ernest C. Withers, the noted Civil Rights photographer, spent 18 years as a double agent for the FBI. Jim Harrison, a paid informant, worked in the Atlanta office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sitting just a few feet from King. (Clarence Jones suspected that Harrison was an agent, and told King about it, so it’s unclear why they didn’t fire him.)

In “MLK/FBI,” the treacherous dance of King and the FBI becomes a sinister soap opera of espionage. The FBI sends a recording of King’s hotel room to King’s home in Atlanta, along with a message demanding that he kill himself; King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, listens to the tape but can’t discern what’s on it. (But did she know what was happening? One suspects that she couldn’t not have.) J. Edgar Hoover denounces King by calling him “the most notorious liar” in the U.S. (a baffling statement unless you know what he’s referring to). But King fires back and, at one point, actually meets with Hoover in his office, trying to make peace. Hoover acts friendly and conciliatory, but of course that’s all a ruse. Through it all, King is living with the daily anxiety that he’ll be exposed. Yet in no way does it tamp down on his activism. The film captures how radical the stand King took in 1967 against the war in Vietnam really was. He was willing to make an enemy of his former ally LBJ, and even his liberal supporters in the press attacked him.

The movie also includes the darkest episode in this saga: that in March 1968, William Sullivan updated King’s FBI file, adding to it the allegation of accessory to rape. It was said, in the file, that King was in his hotel room as a woman was being raped by a Baltimore minister, and that King “looked on and laughed.” The film’s commentators say the charge is highly dubious. It was handwritten (onto an otherwise typed document), and given that the FBI was working with audiotapes, why would the report have stated that King “looked on”? Nevertheless, the mud was splattered, and that kind of mud tends to stick.

“MLK/FBI” won’t leave you feeling at all resolved about these issues. How could it? Half a century on, there is still much to explore about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. — including the plausible possibility that his murder was the result of a government conspiracy. (Clarence Jones says in the film that he thinks King’s official killer, James Earl Ray, had nothing to do with the assassination.) “MLK/FBI” leaves you wanting more, but it provides a gripping chapter in the story of how the forces of American power set out to destroy one of America’s greatest leaders, even as his private behavior had the effect of handing them a weapon.

‘MLK/FBI’ Review: An Incendiary Documentary About the FBI’s Surveillance of the Secret Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Reviewed online, Sept. 17, 2020. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: An IFC release of a Tradecraft Films, Field of Vision, Play/Action Pictures production. Producer: Benjamin Hedin. Executive producers: David Friend, Charlotte Cook, Jeffrey Lurie, Marite Therese Guirgis, Kate Hurwitz, Dana O’Keefe, Steven Farneth.
  • Crew: Director: Sam Pollard. Screenplay: Benjamin Hedin, Laura Tomaselli. Camera: Robert Chappell. Editor: Laura Tomaselli. Music: Gerald Clayton.
  • With: Beverly Gage, David J. Garrow, Andrew Young, Donna Murch, James Comey, Clarence Jones, Charles Knox, Marc Perrusquia.