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TIFF 2020 Review: MLK/FBI

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Recently declassified FBI documents illuminate the surveillance conducted in an effort to neutralize the domestic impact and influence of Martin Luther King Jr..

Both the FBI headed by J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King Jr. are familiar topics of discussion and it is not surprising that the former would view the latter as being a potential threat to national security.  What has been less clear was the extent of the surveillance, internal memos, and tactics utilized by the agency with approval from the White House.  The group of interviewees is kept small which prevents confusion and allows each of them a proper amount of airtime; disorienting at first is the decision to rely on the voices and names until the conclusion where the faces and credentials are finally revealed.

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Rather than relying on re-enactments, movies from the era are intercut with archival footage to demonstrate the perception and antics of the FBI by filmmaker Sam Pollard.  No one is treated as a saint and King was hardly so with his extramarital affairs but it does not diminish his social consciousness in producing what was described as an “ambiguous moral power” that ignited the civil rights movement and blindsided the government which was fixated on the communist threat.  The documentary really exposes the extent the establishment will go to ensure that the status quo is maintained including sending explicit sex audio tapes to the wife of King and making a suggestion in an accompanying note written as if by a disillusioned supporter that he should commit suicide.  Death would come in the form of a sniper’s bullet with questions raised as to why with all of the surveillance devoted towards King was the FBI unable to save him.

The opening montage goes by a bit too quickly and some archival footage is reused; however, Pollard has crafted a polished documentary that does not meander, and the opening credits are slick and effective.  Dissolving from a burning cross to the American flag is a visual that remains very relevant in current times.   One has to wonder how much society has changed along with the tactics of law enforcement agencies.  King viewed death as the most democratic element of nature as it came for everyone so why fear what was inevitable.  The important thing is what one does while they are alive.  In that regard, the iconic civil rights activist certainly practiced what he preached.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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