The past feels hauntingly familiar in this exposé of the state-sanctioned relentless harassment of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, directed by Oscar-nominated and three times Emmy-winning documentary maker Sam Pollard. Pollard’s work has been a necessary indictment of the United States’ violent racist order, as one of the writers of the TV series about the civil rights movement Eyes on the Prize (1990), as editor for Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997) and as director of the critically acclaimed Slavery by Another Name (2012).

The interviewees include journalists, historians, close associates of King and even former members of the FBI, including James Comey, but no family members, nor any of the Black communists who were the primary targets of the agency. Among them is David Garrow, author of an acclaimed biography of King but also, more recently, a controversial essay about him heavily criticised by many historians for its reliance on tenuous FBI allegations of rape.

Strikingly, the voices of commentators are superimposed over a tapestry of images with their names in the corner of the screen. Only at the very end are faces revealed; this creates a fluid sense of storytelling, but also endows ‘expert’ voices with a disembodied authority.

Except for the extramarital affairs, we learn next to nothing about King beyond his public persona, nor about the myriad collaborators effectively erased from what was ultimately a collective endeavour.

A crowd watches Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963

The title MLK/FBI creates a troubling commensurability between the terms; a single man against one of the most powerful institutions in the world. If not for Donna Murch’s reminder of the larger context of systematic surveillance and infiltration of most Black radical movements – part of the illegal programme known as Cointelpro – we would be left with a narrative arc relating a personal vendetta conducted by FBI founder Edgar Hoover against King.

MLK/FBI becomes one of those stories America loves to tell about itself: a dwelling on personal hatred at the expense of systemic racism, and a focus on the ‘South’ that partly exonerates the rest of the country.

MLK/FBI’s harrowing tale has a bitter resonance today, in the aftermath of the brutal repression of protests against police violence and the FBI’s ongoing targeting of Black activists, a number of whom have died in horrific circumstances in the past decade.

Contrary to James Comey’s concluding statement, Martin Luther King’s state-sanctioned harassment is certainly not “the darkest chapter of the Bureau’s history”, but only one among many. Other stories are surely waiting to be told.

Further reading

Walk with me: Ava DuVernay on Selma

Walk with me: Ava DuVernay on Selma

Selma review: Martin Luther King leads his marchers onward

By Ashley Clark

Selma review: Martin Luther King leads his marchers onward

Wake work: how Spike Lee’s soulful documentaries explore personal and public grieving

By Kelli Weston

Wake work: how Spike Lee’s soulful documentaries explore personal and public grieving

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