‘MLK/FBI’ Review: No Justice in the Status Quo

The system was made to push dissent down. That much is clear while looking into the history of any socially progressive movement across the world in the last century or so. The tendency seems to be that anyone who is not compliant with the trends of the time will be silenced by the ruling class in an effort to keep the status quo—which usually benefits them best, to the detriment of most everyone else in society—intact. Given that knowledge, MLK/FBI exists as another document of injustice in a long history of its existence in the history of mankind.

MLK/FBI is a 2020 documentary about the surveillance that the FBI did on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. between the March on Washington in 1963 and his death in 1968. It was directed by Sam Pollard, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker with a history of making documentaries about the Civil Rights era, including producing the acclaimed Spike Lee documentary 4 Little Girls

The film is made up of real footage from the era, ranging from interviews, news reports, films, and photographs that depict the time as it was, with a running narration from a group of knowledgeable people from actual living participants of the era like Andrew Young and Clarence Jones, to former FBI head James Comey and FBI expert and author Beverly Gage. An interesting choice done in the film is that, unlike most documentaries, the footage from the past is not interrupted by the talking heads of experts, which presents a more immersive experience to the era than most documentaries usually provide.  

There is a clarity of purpose in MLK/FBI. This documentary wasn’t made to glorify or deify Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights movement, though the film works under the assumption that the movement was righteous in its cause and methods. Its focus is instead found on the American government at the time, specifically shining a spotlight on the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. Their surveillance of Martin Luther King devolved from finding proof that he was a Communist or sympathetic to their cause into an all-out plot to discredit him as a moral leader by secretly recording his infidelities and trying to leak it out to the press, an investigation that would not be released until 2027. 

It becomes a story of a paranoid government police force using all the power at their disposal to remove a leader of a social movement because he was not “moral” enough to their tastes. Martin Luther King was a true subversive, a man of peace whose creed of non-violence encompassed all people of all races, genders, and creeds. That Hoover and the government disliked him because of his refusal to bow to their demands of how they should be protesting and what they should be protesting about shows the internal rot and racism that the American government, and the FBI specifically, had. 

The documentary very compellingly creates a portrait of an agency whose interpretation of law and order leaves no room for protestors or people with differing ideologies, as portrayed by their obsession with trampling the Communists in the country; an agency who built a cultural image of being strong, white protectors against the Communist cause to insulate themselves from any criticisms of overreach or abuse. The FBI, as shown in this film, evolved to protect only the interests of the status quo government, which means that the moment Martin Luther King did anything out of those parameters, including being an early dissenter of the Vietnam War and his advocacy for the poor in America, they were ready to swoop in to either push him back to the fold or silence his dissent.

People tend to say that the system is broken in the way it disenfranchises and abuses minorities while giving them limited access to rights that the ruling class has. MLK/FBI shows that the system was built this way, built to put everyone who is not in the ruling class at a disadvantage. The abuse and subjugation is the point. You can even see it now in the United States, where the system actively impedes the government from helping its citizens, whether it’s money they need during a pandemic, or regulations to keep the workplace tolerable, or even just stopping their police force from using brutal force against Black people. It’s a harmful system that, as MLK/FBI documents, has existed for as long as the United States has.

Whether the world will ever get to a point where Martin Luther King’s dream comes true, one thing we know is that there will be no justice in the status quo unless we ourselves push it forward. The Civil Rights era may be decades separated from ours, but the system has remained—and will do so unless the citizenry acts against it.

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