Wednesday 20 January 2021

Taps: "MLK/FBI"

Among its other accomplishments, Sam Pollard's documentary MLK/FBI forms a tremendous advert for archives and archiving. Pollard has occasioned a notable journalistic coup, in that he's got wind of the extensive surveillance activity the FBI carried out on Martin Luther King through the 1960s; the details of this have been sourced from several offices' worth of recently declassified Bureau memos. These in turn have been supplemented by an extraordinarily evocative array of photographs and newsreel taken during a particularly fraught moment in American race relations: a moment where King was viewed by some as the figurehead of the biggest civil rights movement in US history - and by the Bureau as (to quote one such memo) "the most dangerous Negro in the United States", a potential carrier of that lingering Cold War virus Communism. A hefty part of that fear was simple racism: as several of these documents indicate, there was a widespread belief on the Bureau's part that African-Americans were "more susceptible" to non-American ideas. For Reds under the beds, Hoover and his antsy G-men - nothing if not diligent in their pursuit of new boogeymen - substituted in a new threat: Blacks marching in packs. Tapes and wiretaps were therefore made in an attempt to catch something that might knock Dr. King off his lofty pedestal, and more specifically to demonstrate he may have been as untrustworthy sexually as the Bureau deemed he was politically. What's interesting about Pollard's film is how those supplementary photos and clips can't help but put King back up there, and - better - document King as he may well have been: a flesh-and-blood man at the middle of a maelstrom, yet one who came to embody hope, and to speak the words a sizeable part of the American public desperately needed to hear. If he did let his guard down or his halo slip, one concludes, it surely can't have been that often - and probably not often enough to seal any part of the Bureau's case.

However it was recorded, King's voice comes through loud and clear: Pollard draws most regularly on his subject's informal interviews (radio and talkshow spots) rather than the more familiar speeches. Yet MLK/FBI structures itself around those memos, and the Bureau's increasingly heavyhanded efforts to catch their quarry in some dubious act; it swiftly assumes the pace and contours of a thriller. (Gaps in the archive are filled by extracts from such contemporary potboilers as 1951's I Am A Communist for the FBI and 1959's The FBI Story.) Those heard narrating this story - scholars, King associates, Bureau insiders (including former director James Comey) - are kept offscreen until late on. Pollard's aim has been to stitch together as immersive a document as possible of this most turbulent of American decades, and the story doesn't need intruders from the present-day, because we soon realise all this archive functions as both a record and a mirror. The paranoia fostered around MLK reflects that right-wing sources have fostered around the Black Lives Matter movement; the vox pops with citizens linking King to events beyond his control sound no less familiar. (You realise the Bureau wouldn't have had to dig up much to discredit King in the eyes of the American majority.) For his part, Pollard remains tactful - from a journalistic perspective, you'd say responsible - about the detail contained in some of the Bureau's memos, and he has to be: if the past few weeks, months and years have underlined anything, they've underlined the dangers of pumping scurrilous, imprecise information into the public domain. I suspect some viewers will want more on the potential bombshell the film drops - and begins to address - in its closing moments. As an end credit teases, we're now waiting for the release of classified tapes in 2027; to some degree, the memos are but preamble. But as any archivist would tell you, patience is a virtue; indeed, one reason to enter the archives in the first place is to distance yourself from - in actively disproving - all that is speculative and groundless.

MLK/FBI is now streaming via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Dogwoof on Demand.

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