The FBI’s secret campaign of bugging, harassment and defamation against Martin Luther King Jr in the 60s is the subject of this startling but sometimes frustratingly reticent and guarded documentary. This poisonous dirty-tricks campaign continued until King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, a murder that the bureau was somehow unable to prevent, despite its fanatical round-the-clock surveillance of King as well as its loudly proclaimed dedication to crimefighting.
It is now a matter of record that King was a flawed human being and had extramarital sex, but this is an enduringly mysterious part of his public image. (Even Ava DuVernay’s very fine biopic account of King in her 2014 movie Selma, starring David Oyelowo, tactfully romanticises these indiscretions.) The bureau’s audio tapes of alleged meetings in hotel rooms were finally, in 1977, handed over to the National Archives by order of a federal judge but sealed – they cannot be released until 2027 at the earliest. What exactly will they prove? Anything at all? All we have right now are the typescripts of the agents’ highly subjective summary reports.
This film from Sam Pollard, based largely on the work of Pulitzer-winning historian David J Garrow, shows how bizarrely toxic and dysfunctional the FBI’s campaign was, an ongoing secret war that involved running informants within the civil rights movement – a painful and even tragic aspect of this history that probably deserves a documentary of its own. Bureau director J Edgar Hoover was incensed by King’s leftist associations, and by his international celebrity, especially after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1964. After chancing on evidence of his adultery, Hoover hoped to use this to undermine him, and with extraordinary spite circulated the tapes to King’s wife Coretta and even to church leaders and the press, apparently hoping (in vain) that someone would go public.
There was even a suggestion that King was present at a rape – and this film, very gingerly indeed, comes close to hinting that there might one day be a #MeToo case to answer. But wait. Where is the proof here? Where is the naming of names? Surely the bureau, with all the dark powers at its command, could have induced one of King’s alleged mistresses to come forward and go public? Apparently not. It is a question that this film does not fully address, although it certainly gives us a queasily detailed picture of Hoover’s pure paranoid nastiness.
• MLK/FBI is on digital platforms from 15 January.