MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
MLK/FBI - On Hulu; Streaming Rental ($3.99)
Documentary directed by Sam Pollard
There are at least two movies being played out simultaneously in the new documentary MLK/FBI.
The first film tells the story about how J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation took part in an undercover surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that began in 1963 and lasted until King’s assassination in 1968. While Hoover was determined to find ways to link King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Communism, he became especially fond of finding ways to record and document Dr. King’s extramarital affairs in hopes of using taped recordings to intimidate and shame the civil rights leader. As the film so accurately shows, Dr. King was able to stay the course and courageously stand for nonviolent protest in dignified and well-spoken speeches, sermons and interviews. When he began to speak out boldly against the Vietnam War, he created more negative backlash than Hoover could have imagined. This film includes a lot of great archival footage as well as running commentary from noted King biographer David J. Garrow, speechwriter and friend Clarence B. Jones, and colleague Andrew Young.
The second film is the parallel story about J. Edgar Hoover, the creation of the FBI, and Hoover’s predilection to use the agency to bolster his personal fears of Communism and black power. As recently shown in Judas and the Black Messiah, Hoover targeted the Black Panthers as well. While the film doesn’t shy away from depicting these campaigns of subterfuge, the movie also seems nostalgic about the romanticized image of the “G-Men”, using campy footage from 1950s anti-Communist movies as well as the popular TV series “The FBI” to provide a smile or two. It is hard to wink at the pro-FBI propaganda alongside racist scenes from The Birth of a Nation and images of demonstrators bitten by attack dogs and knocked down with firehoses.
What is most upsetting about MLK/FBI are remarks made in the film by Yale professor Beverly Gage (who is the author of G-Men: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, a cited source that I could not locate anywhere in my research). She comments that we need to remember that at the time of Dr. King’s wiretaps the FBI had a popularity rating of 50% compared to MLK’s 17%. I am growing tired of “ethics” connected to popularity polls. The broken and damaged partisan divide of American politics is directly connected to winning elections. Outspoken prophets who are not beholden to the system will continue to be seen as threats. People who claim the love of Jesus need to hear voices that speak truth to power and love for all.
I wish that I could recommend MLK/FBI (as so many others have), but I cannot. Any film that has to be accompanied with so many disclaimers is not a good witness to the truth. As United Methodists think about our denomination’s future, it might be time to reflect upon this, as well.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Good source material is unfortunately used to prop up a false equivalency.
Three pitchforks: For the film’s argument to accept injustice as a given.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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