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Two New Films About the Black Struggle in the 60s

Two new films directed by African-Americans are essential guides to the Black struggle in the USA during the 1960s. Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI” covers J. Edgar Hoover’s racist attempt to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. while Regina King’s narrative film “One Night in Miami” imagines the conversations that took place between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke at the Hampton Hotel in Miami on the evening of February 25, 1964. That was the night that Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston and became world heavyweight champion and who announced to the world the next day that he was now to be called Muhammad Ali.

Seen together, the two films are a powerful statement about the continuity between the struggles that shook the USA to its roots a half-century ago and the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Although I generally write reviews about films that are easily accessible through either widespread theatrical release and/or streaming through the customary outlets such as Netflix or Amazon, my advice is to search the horizon for them starting with the “MLK/FBI” website and Amazon Prime. Amazon produced “One Night in Miami” and will likely make the film available at some point.

“MLK/FBI” draws heavily from David Garrow’s 1981 “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis”. Garrow’s commentary is heard throughout the film, along with that of two African-American studies professors: Donna Murch and Beverly Gage.

In addition to the three scholars, we hear from Clarence Jones, MLK Jr.’s close friend who is still alive at the age of 89. Jones, a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University and the author of two books on MLK Jr., provided legal advice to him in the early 60s. Jones also introduced him to another lawyer named Stanley Levison, who turned out to be the primary cause of J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta.

Like tens of thousands of other Americans, Levison had been a member of the Communist Party but likely had become an ex-member by the time he became MLK Jr.’s adviser. But in the eyes of the FBI, there was never an ex-member. Unless you were someone like red turned red-baiter Whittaker Chambers, you were permanently pegged as a traitor.

“MLK/FBI” includes footage from some of the Hollywood films and TV shows of the early 60s that portrayed the FBI as fearless defenders of the American way of life against Communist spies. Like “Reefer Madness”, they are good for a laugh or two if you forget that they functioned to buttress a system making political activism a crime.

In the early 60s, the winds of change were sweeping across the political landscape but for the FBI, McCarthyism was still the official ideology. To ferret out secret ties between Levison, MLK Jr., and the Kremlin, FBI agents began wiretapping his home and putting secret microphones in hotel rooms where he stayed during his frequent speaking tours. They never found anything that led to an espionage network. Instead, they discovered that King was a womanizer who enjoyed extramarital affairs despite his rock-ribbed reputation as a pastor and family man.

Once Hoover discovered these indiscretions, he launched a new campaign that focused more on King’s personal failings rather than his politics. Indeed, when King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover went ballistic since it rendered cheap redbaiting attacks impotent.

As the film makes very clear, the carefully orchestrated attack on King as a kind of sex fiend drew from the deep well of racism going back to the origins of Jim Crow in the South. When Blacks began to be elected to state and federal posts in the Deep South during Reconstruction, racists warned that it would lead “uppity” Blacks raping white women. D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” enshrined this racist mythology with legitimation from President Woodrow Wilson who showed it at the White House.

While Lyndon Johnson had the reputation of being a powerful ally of the civil rights movement determined to break the back of Jim Crow, his political past suggested an affinity with fellow Democratic Party president Woodrow Wilson. According to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, when he met with southern politicians, he’d refer to “nigras”. In meetings with Mississippi Democrat James Eastland, Johnson referred to his keynote legislation as “the nigger bill.”

On November 18, 1964, Hoover held a press conference in which he called King “the most notorious liar in the country” because of his questioning whether FBI agents in the south were willing to arrest KKK terrorists. Stung by King’s frankness, the FBI chief decided to authorize an intimidating letter of the kind that marked the infamous Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). (I got one myself in 1968).

The FBI sent both Martin and his wife Coretta a package with a tape recording supposedly capturing the conversation between her husband and one of his lovers in a hotel room along with an angry letter supposedly written by a disillusioned Black man.

The letter called King “a colossal fraud . . . and a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile” and advised him to commit suicide:  “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is . . . There is but one way out . . . You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

King figured out that the FBI was behind the letter and continued his fight against racial injustice, and very likely the trysts that were certainly none of the FBI’s business.

Whatever support Johnson gave to civil rights legislation, he eventually cooled toward the movement after King began speaking out against the war in Vietnam. A Ramparts magazine issue that contained graphic images of Vietnamese children maimed by napalm was enough to turn him into an outspoken anti-warrior.

While “MLK/FBI” does not go into his assassination in any depth, it does ask how James Earl Ray could have killed someone under Hoover’s microscope on April 4, 1964. With his every step being monitored by agents, how could the FBI have missed the conspiracy that made him a martyr to the Black struggle?

“One Night in Miami” originated as a play written by Kemp Powers that premiered in Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre in 2018. Powers discovered a reference to the post-fight hotel gathering in the late and great CounterPunch author Mike Marqusee’s 1999 book “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties.” Indeed, the film based on Powers’s play might as well have been subtitled “The Black Spirit of the Sixties” since the four protagonists symbolized Black power in one sense or another.

Malcolm X was at the peak of his fame in 1963 but facing a difficult period in which his decision to launch a new organization would eventually cost him his life. In Miami to prepare Cassius Clay for his transformation into Muhammad Ali as a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm spends much of the time in the hotel room guilt-baiting Sam Cooke and Jim Brown as sell-outs. From their standpoint, success as entrepreneurs vindicated them as Black power operatives even if it amounted to the Black Capitalism that Nixon promoted five years after their get-together.

Cooke defends himself by pointing out how his skills as a businessman helped Black people piggyback on the massive popularity of the Rolling Stones. Written by Bobby Womack, a stalwart of Cooke’s production company, “It’s All Over Now” was a success on Black radio stations but it never matched the revenue generated by the Rolling Stones version. Jim Brown took Cooke’s side in the debate and argued that his soon to be launched career as an actor was another example of Black accomplishment, especially in a place like Hollywood where skin color was not necessarily a barrier.

In a stroke of creative genius, Kemp Powers has Malcolm X lecturing about deep changes in the music business that would make the struggle for both Black equality and peace not only accessible but as popular as the Rolling Stones. He then plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the group.

Despite being a filmed version of a play, “One Night in Miami” is far more riveting than any film made by a Black creative team I’ve seen in recent years. Powers has researched the lives of the four principals in great depth and written dialog for them that rings true even if it is entirely made up. Given the need for a film that speaks both to the history of the Black struggle nearly a half-century ago and its contemporary relevance today, this is a film that will be appreciated by people my age who lived through the sixties as well as a new generation of activists—both Black and white—who want to see a savvy and vital evocation of our past.

“One Night in Miami” ends fittingly with Sam Cooke singing, “A Change is Gonna Come”.