Martin Luther King Jr. occupied a position at the center of American politics and culture for only 15-odd years as a living, breathing, active force. There’s scarcely another figure in history who could claim to have changed so much, had so profound an influence on any given nation, indeed the entire world, in so short a space of time. It’s testament to the integrity of his message and the astonishing talent he possessed for expressing that message that, over 50 years since his death, every last chapter of those remarkable years remains prime fodder for scrutiny, speculation and dramatic adaptation.

At the end of Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, a crucial detail of the film’s inquiries is revealed: the majority of FBI materials from their investigations into King, covering most of the 1960s, won’t be eligible for public viewing until 2027. To this point, the film has covered that era through the prism of those very investigations, examining not only King’s activities as a major, controversial public figure but also what the FBI made of those activities, alongside the private activities they rigorously snooped upon. For over an hour and a half, Pollard has presented a dazzling montage of archive footage and analysis of declassified FBI documents in what is undoubtedly the most thorough, comprehensive screen treatment of this troubling episode in 20th Century American history.

Thorough it may be, but enlightening it perhaps is not. Even prior to the last-minute reveal that, in fact, Pollard’s presentation is but a fraction of what is likely a far larger, far more troubling picture, there’s an increasing sense of rote familiarity to MLK/FBI. For the lay viewer, it’s an adequately illuminating film, full of information and insight; indeed, its educational value is unusually high for such a commercial, mainstream documentary. Yet even the lay viewer – particularly the American lay viewer – may find themselves underwhelmed by this film, whether in the many articles of common knowledge depicted as revelatory, the banal conclusions depicted as radical and intellectually innovative or the plodding monotony of its pace and style. Once it’s stated that it’ll be yet six more years before the full extent of the FBI’s investigations will be unveiled, it’s clear why MLK/FBI has such a peculiarly underwhelming power for a film about a man whose message carried such overwhelming power: it’s incomplete.

If incomplete, it’s thankfully rich in detail and understanding throughout. Pollard’s focus is, oddly, not trained entirely on the FBI side of things but on the MLK side – it’s like a conventional biodoc with regular adjuncts giving it a mildly unique timbre. So we chronicle the final years, the most public years of King’s extraordinary life, observing him in action, hearing and reading the FBI’s opinions on those actions and hearing too the opinions of the American public. On these latter points, where Pollard does occasionally indulge in some deep, rewarding probing, MLK/FBI is at its most compelling. We’re reminded that this most exalted human emblem of the fight for equality was, in his time, an extremely polarizing man, liked by less than half of the American population, trusted by less still. And looking into the FBI culture that precipitated, even (in their warped view of the world) necessitated investigation of King’s private life, Pollard is tantalizingly incisive – incisive in his appreciation of the culture under J. Edgar Hoover, tantalizingly so in his reticence to explore this topic further.

Instead, MLK/FBI too frequently reverts to pushing forward with its plain, linear, even restless retelling of its story, which simply proceeds through its period with a dogged insistence on leaving no Is undotted, no Ts uncrossed in recollecting the major events in King’s later life. Once the basic facts of each event have been established, contemporaneous FBI commentary is provided with some explanation of how and why the agency (and the federal government) thought it appropriate to do such dirty digging. It’s all fitfully shocking, yet it’s not once surprising. After all, what was then known widely throughout black America – that politicians and law enforcement loathed and mistrusted their community leaders – is now known widely throughout the world, knowledge that has only become more transparent as the progression of American culture has occurred in tandem with the regression of American law enforcement culture. These days, only the most blinkered viewer could find any of MLK/FBI’s findings as viscerally chilling as Pollard needs them to be for his film to fully work. It doesn’t help that he’s so eager to move the story forward that he fails to afford these findings proper scrutiny, nor that the film’s style and tone are so mundane and straightforward. It makes sense that the recent declassification of the files used to make this documentary would warrant 100 or so minutes of cinematic investigation of their own but sense alone does not a great movie make.

Informative and engaging yet hampered by a feeling of inconclusiveness and a reluctance to dig as deep as it ought to.
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