Monday, November 16, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: MLK/FBI

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Directed by Sam Pollard
Ticket Information

Martin Luther King, Jr. is surely one of the most influential figures in American history. His legacy is invoked frequently by those championing noble causes, and his tragically short life has left quite a mark. His fight for the rights of Black people in America was in response to the horrible inequality he witnessed that was so pervasive in society, rooted in slavery and transformed into segregation and discrimination. Though most consider him a role model, it’s an unfortunate fact that not everyone saw him as a force for good.

This documentary examines the FBI’s years-long surveillance of King, directed by J. Edgar Hoover to dig up dirt on the popular activist that could potentially be used to discredit him if he was perceived to have become too much of a menace. As he spoke on television and to packed crowds about the issues that mattered most to him, he was followed and listened to constantly by teams set on uncovering elements of his personal life, such as infidelity, that might serve to damage his image as an example for so many.

The full details of this investigation are set to be unveiled in 2027, a future event several subjects in this film discuss as a potentially damaging revelation since it will likely show an even more targeted and infuriating effort to paint King as anything other than a good person. This film makes excellent use of archive footage and knowledgeable historians to construct a timeline and framework to track King’s public actions and the near-certainty that he was being watched at every moment, including when he was assassinated.

There may be many implications from this film and the eventual declassification of all the documents from the FBI. A mistrust in government organizations isn’t likely to be helpful since that has already begun in many forms, but the notion that King was profiled as a threat because of the things he was saying serves as an important reminder about the institutionalization of systemic racism at precisely the time when civil rights were supposedly advancing the attitude of the country. This film doesn’t attempt to suggest that King was anything near perfect, and instead shows him as a humble man who believes strongly in the causes which he preaches and doesn’t believe himself to be better than anyone. It offers a powerful portrait of a man whose legacy needs no pampering and the disappointing way in which others sought to keep him from achieving any progress for fear of what his message might mean.


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