directed by Sam Pollard
by Angelo Muredda Documentarian and editor Sam Pollard peers into the recently declassified files on the FBI's aggressive counter-intelligence operation against Martin Luther King, Jr. in MLK/FBI. Pollard's nonfiction essay is an infuriating and timely document undermined at times by its glossy, cinema-of-quality treatment. It is at once a sobering work of public significance and a slickly produced project that risks overly flattering its hypothetical spectators with too many ironic vignettes, zooming in to an old television set at one point to marvel at Ronald Reagan droning on about heroes and villains in the movies. In its first hour alone, it comes replete with black-and-white animations of vintage tape recorders, microfiche, and superimposed text and solemn voiceovers from a who's-who of historians, activists, and former agents (whose faces are not revealed until the last act). More curiously, it concedes surprisingly long stretches to Resistance Democratic favourite James Comey, a career agent and former director who offers up nothing more insightful than his recognition that, sure, the Bureau might have been a bit heavy-handed when it came to King.
That uncomfortable friendliness towards authority sits at odds with not only the unsparing history the film recounts, but also the remarkable archival images Pollard surveys with aplomb when not indulging these tics of document-centric historical nonfiction. His access to one of its former directors notwithstanding, Pollard is clear-eyed about depicting the FBI as an insidious organization that has long devoted its energies to suppressing Black grassroots organizing and political dissidents. MLK/FBI is particularly sharp on the subject of J. Edgar Hoover's systematic campaign to destroy King in the court of public opinion, lest he become, in Hoover's eyes (and as one subject puts it), a "Black messiah." Pollard bitingly juxtaposes Hoover's indictment of King's apparent sexual promiscuity--and attendant hangups around Black male sexuality--with the upstanding, white sexlessness of G-Men as promulgated through American pop culture of the moment, finding a more purposeful use for the cinematic images of the heroes of law enforcement and defenders of the state that he weaves in a bit less successfully elsewhere. The result is a mixed bag, yet no less critically important for being aesthetically overstuffed. Programme: TIFF Docs