When Scandal Preempts the Pursuit of Justice: a Review of MLK/FBI

“You can’t handle the truth!”  The iconic aspersion from the 1992 courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, could easily be an indictment on more than half of this planet’s population – including those who perch themselves in the bully pulpit-like folding chairs assigned to Hollywood directors.

The other night I saw, for the first time since its January 2021 release, the documentary MLK/FBI: a probe into the inextricable paths of the luminary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a man, who may very well be, the most homicidal, chauvinistic, racist zealot in the history of America, John Edgar Hoover – (The treasonist, Jefferson Davis notwithstanding.)

The film was directed by, Sam Pollard, one of most brilliant cinematic narrators in recent times. An artist, who, for me, up until this film, has aroused very little disappointment, although, in the name of honesty, most of the work that resonates with me Pollard did under the job title of editor, and was directed by the fearless capable hands of Spike Lee – and a few others. That said; Pollard’s foray into the duties of director has been impressive. His (1990) Eyes on the Prize and (2016) Two Trains Runnin are superb films – and his (2021) Black Art in the Absence of Light, is teed up on my Amazon Prime favorite list, ready for my eagerly awaiting first look.

All of that is not to suggest that MLK/FBI is not an intriguing, and, at times, enjoyable ride. Pollard, in my assessment, delivers a well-crafted document that gives the world the first in-depth visual look at King and Hoover collectively – a paring that, for the sake of artistic responsibility, should have contributed more to the clearing, of the perpetual haze, that surrounds the grisly murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is hard for me to fathom, why a feature film would disclose how the FBI sent Dr. King a tape of one of his infidelities, along with a note that suggested that he “Kill himself,” and not, to some degree, explore the likelihood that the FBI orchestrated their morbid suggestion themselves. To do so, a film would only have to consider the book, The Plot to Kill King – written by another one of Dr. King’s (and Mrs. King’s) lawyers and trusted comrades, William Francis Pepper, a pivotal voice in regards to the King assignation – and one that was conspicuously absent in MLK/FBI.

Instead, Pollard uses a lot of his 104 minutes of precious run time to stoke the incendiary circumstances that surrounds Dr. King’s infidelities, and the approaching revelatory epoch of February 2027, when incriminating recordings of King are slated to be released from the US National Archives.

As a writer, someone compelled to dispense the truth, I would never consent to the idea of totally suppressing what’s on those tapes – So I can understand, to some degree, why Pollard was induced to point his camera in that direction. However, it seems to me, the transgressions Dr. King committed (minus the alleged rape accusation) only attests to the insurmountable pressure he was experiencing, due to the death threats and racial animosity he constantly lived with. And more significantly, these antiquated peccadilloes were, and are, truly, a personal concern of Mrs. King and the King family, which in essence reduces Dr. King’s follies to the frivolous status of: peripheral interest. To put it more simply, society and posterity has more integral stamps to collect, especially when one considers that there is no statute of limitations on diabolically planned assassinations.

So, as “juicy” as it may be, William Sullivan (the FBI’s second in charge) and Hoover’s problem with Dr. King’s “morality,” due to his extra marital endeavors, (at a time, mind you, when they were likely aware of President Kennedy’s Olympic-like sexual indulgences) was not the narrative I was looking forward to, when I first got wind of MLK/FBI.

What spurs both my expectation and disappointment is the string of provocative civil rights documentaries that have set a glaring new precedent – beginning with Raoul Peck’s (2016) I am Not Your Negro – on up to Rachel Dretzin and Phil Bertelsen’s (2020) Who Killed Malcolm X? Both films go after their aforementioned titles with unflinching unapologetic audacity, which, in my opinion, is the only way to approach clamant topics of discussion – especially ones that will figure, not only into a post traumatic family trying to survive the aftermath of a macabre loss, but also, into the pain and angst of a nation, still struggling to overcome, the savage inhumane culture that established it, and that in many ways continues to reign.

America has a history of ignoring reality, or looking, like the evil Queen that she is, in the proverbial magic mirror while telling untruths about herself. Some of the artists this country has produced were, and are, unscrupulously complicit in this farce, with literary fiction and cinematic narratives as their primary means. James Baldwin, one of this country’s most responsible artists/witnesses, famously gainsaid this negligent practice while ruminating on, “The burden of the artist.” (Note: I will paraphrase slightly in order to achieve a comprehensible continuum): “(An artist has to bear) witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face.”

The veracity of that statement is at the crux of what racially ails this nation, and if the artistic community does not force, by way of her or his work, America to face the truth about itself, the enablers of this republic, especially the liberal body politic (and their television pundits) will continue to cloak behind the adolescent pretense, or indifference, this nation continues to embarrassingly uphold. Baldwin’s charge may be the commitment that every trustworthy artist has to make in order for progress to expand, but unfortunately a lot of artists are not consistently willing to comply. A fact that makes me feel sorry, sorry for Dr. King, and for the courageous effort he gave to the African American plight.

What I mean by that is; America may have reached a point where Dr. King’s horrific death has been mythologized so profusely, that it is only relevant when attached to romantic headlines and commemorations, or messy tabloid-esque art and scrutiny – as if Dr. King were no longer deserving of the justice he was trying so hard to actualize for everyone else. What I find interesting is, when I juxtapose the same desire I have for justice, in regards to the assassination of Minster Malcolm X, (a crime that took place three years before Dr. King’s brutal demise) I find a healthy plausible pulse for redemption, a feeling I’m all but certain is comforting to the Shabazz family.

Since that horrible February day in 1965, Minster Malcolm has accumulated some of the things proffered to Dr. King – things like: schools, libraries and neighborhood streets all named after him, a commemorative postal stamp, a university Educational Center, and a sea of 6×10 photographs mounted on living room walls around the globe. As illustrious as that medley of laurels sound, the Minister has not been lionized the way Dr. King has been lionized.

Stone effigies of the reverend are ensconced in one of the hallowed niches in Westminster Abbey, and between the Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln memorials in Washington DC. This country has also dedicated, after an arduous effort by the invulnerable Mrs. Coretta Scott King, a national holiday in the Doctor’s venerated name.

Baldwin asserted, in his 1972 Esquire essay, Malcolm and Martin – “In some church someday, so far unimagined and unimaginable, he (Minister Malcolm) will be hailed as a saint.”

Well, in the meantime, due to the candid documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X? – and the recent written testimony of former undercover police officer Ray Wood, that posthumously details his participation in an FBI/NYPD plot to assassinate Minister Malcolm, the Shabazz family is lawyering up to pursue 56 years of back justice. That’s the kind of reward art can incite and reap, the kind that Chairman Fred Hampton and the Hamptonfamily deserve, the kind Mark Clark and the Clark family deserve, the kind that the Fagan family may one day pursue for Ms. Billie Holiday, and the kind Dr. King and the King family, without question, are worthy of.

The beauty of art and documenting history, (whether textual or cinematic) is that the work is never officially done. There’s always a need, and call, for new insight and perspective.

May the true story of what happened to Dr. King, one day, be revealed to the world – so that America can stand in front of the mirror and face, (then begin to regulate) its inhumane culture – and so Dr. King and the King family can rest, and live, respectively, in an unclouded peace.