I was in my teens when the Civil Rights movement reached its apex in the 1960s. I wasn’t politically engaged back then, but I retain an indelible image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a man of innate dignity whose approach to protest was emphatically non-violent. He stood in sharp contrast to a new breed of black leaders like Malcolm X and Huey Newton.

I also remember my impression of J. Edgar Hoover, which is more difficult to impart to younger people who have (understandably) come to demonize him. My generation was raised to believe that he and his Federal Bureau of Investigation were the ultimate Good Guys—dedicated, clean-cut, hard-working men who protected us from enemies on all sides.

That’s just one of the points that’s underscored in Sam Pollard’s spellbinding documentary. At one juncture, after Hoover blasted King as our country’s biggest liar a public opinion poll favored the G-man over the Baptist minister by a large degree. That’s how brainwashed we were about J. Edgar, who’d been on the job since 1924… and how few Americans were disillusioned about the war in Southeast Asia. King suffered for speaking his conscience.

MLK/FBI is a sober, thoughtful film that also explores the dark secrets that Bureau agents found in their relentless pursuit of dirt about the Civil Rights leader. The recordings they made of his sexual encounters fueled an undercurrent of gossip…but if they had been openly released they could have ruined him and despoiled his image forever. (They are still under lock and key until 2027.)

The movie, and its commentators, debate the thorny issue of whether a man of faith and purpose could be forgiven for cheating on his wife and indulging in sexual escapades that would still be considered taboo. Coretta Scott King never wavered in her loyalty to her husband, at least in public. We get to see King carry on his crusade at moments when he was under a terrible strain. We hear from a handful of scholars, authors, and two of the preacher’s confidantes, Clarence Jones and Andrew Young. Pollard has chosen to use only the sound of their voices during the body of his film so that our eyes are constantly taking in images of King himself.

I don’t know that MLK/FBI reveals anything new about its subject, but it clarifies and amplifies facets of his story in a timely way. It couldn’t be more relevant, as a document of history or as a cautionary tale about balancing a public and private existence.

No one makes an in-depth documentary like this single-handedly, so I want to acknowledge the credited writers, Benjamin Hedlin and Laura Tomaselli (who also edited the film), archival producers Brian Becker and Sheila Griffin, and composer Gerald Clayton.

MLK/FBI is one of many fine documentaries vying for attention and awards. It’s well worth seeing and is now available for streaming on a number of platforms.

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April 2024