No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s all but impossible to argue that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is anything less than a hero of the civil rights movement. A perfect person? Of course not, but his contribution to American society and equality can not be understated. At the same time, during the height of this struggle, it’s impossible not to take notice of how the government looked askew at Dr. King. That suspicion, as well as the forced that conspired against him, form the basis of the documentary MLK/FBI, continuing its festival run with a stopover at the 58th New York Film Festival. Not just one of the best docs of the year so far, it’s incendiary and vital, while never forgetting to draw you in. With a narrative as thrilling as any Hollywood conspiracy picture, it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in this one.
MLK/FBI features well known historical figures like Dr. King, J. Edgar Hoover, President Lyndon Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, and more, but the doc is primarily concerned what why figures did what they did. That question is never a simple one to answer, but it’s to the film’s credit that an ample attempt is made. The effectiveness at which the historical record is presented, as well as the fluidity with which it’s conveyed cinematically, makes it one of NYFF’s best this year.
Utilizing newly declassified files from the time period, the documentary looks at the breadth and scope of the United States government’s harassment, surveillance, and overall suspicion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mainly, this comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and their director, J. Edgar Hoover. Watching the evolution of how Hoover and the FBI target Dr. King over the years, the doc also focuses on the government’s past history targeting black activists. It’s impossible not to draw parallels to a lot of what’s going on today between our government and those fighting for change, which the filmmaker does not shy away from.
Not only does MLK/FBI provide insight into what was going on with Dr. King at the time, it also probes the FBI as well. It doesn’t just examine what Hoover and his cronies were doing to King, but how and, more importantly, why. Even as well known moments in history are flashed back to, it’s almost always tackled with a slightly new angle.
Director Sam Pollard brings clear-headed approach to the documentary. Along with writers Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli, Pollard has a thesis that’s effectively conveyed throughout. MLK/FBI does not shy away from Dr. King’s infidelities, opting to present the man with flaws intact. Likewise, Hoover is shown to be vile in many ways, but also as a true believer who felt in his bones that he was protecting the American way of life. Of course, that way of life only applied to a specific part of the citizenry, but that never occurred to Hoover. While King was pushing to lead the United States forward, Hoover was closer to an ideology fitting in with a certain slogan found on red hats.
Pollard edits the picture brilliantly, maintaining narrative momentum and pacing. Mixing in archival footage with cinematic depictions of the FBI from the time period, he effortlessly drops you into the time period. True crime aficionados and fans will be able to dig into this one they dive into any other effort in the genre. This is much more than a simple history lesson. It’s a warning about unchecked political power and the injustice that can come out of it.
MLK/FBI is a top-tier 2020 New York Film Festival title, plain and simple. Look for it to be a player in the Best Documentary Feature field at the Academy Awards. This doc is more than good enough for Oscar love, so don’t even sleep on it as a potential winner. The movie is that good. Not only that, it’s essential cinema for the times we live in.