Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 25, 2020 10:01 pm 
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How the FBI hounded MLK and let him die

This is, above all, a film that organizes things for us, things we may already know. It focuses on key dates. I'm not sure if there is a whole lot new here for one well acquainted with the US in the sixties. This may be the first film to uncover fully the extent of the FBI's surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. But what emerges that may be most fresh is a different sense of the mood of the country, what white Americans in general thought and felt. It's also a good-looking film. As is often the case now with modern digital editing techniques, everything looks snappy, and it's made stylish and unified by being almost entirely in brilliant black and white. It's a good choice not to have talking heads seen but archival footage, with the voiceover identified discretely by a name in the corner.

What we particularly need to know is that after the milestone March on Washington (August 28, 1963), with MKK's famous "I have a dream" speech, an example of his leadership, eloquence, and ability to rise to the greatest occasion, the number two man at the FBI, W.C. Sullivan, director for domestic intelligence operations, declared King to be "the most dangerous Negro in America." And they set upon him with all their ability to follow and snoop, with wiretaps and later "bugs" and FBI agents in adjoining rooms listening wherever King went. This film makes clear that this suspicion was not peculiar to the FBI, least of all the paranoia of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, but typical of the mood of the country at that time. Glimpses of many films show how Americans were indoctrinated in an admiration of the FBI. Women admired the agents and thought them sexy; little boys wanted to grow up to become them.

They found King relied heavily on a lawyer, Stanley Levinson, who was a former communist. He was brought up before the notorious HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. President Kennedy met with MLK and warned him he must not associate with Levinson. King promised he would stop. This was a lie: he continued to see him.

I lived through this period, but this film has helped me see that I may very well have experienced it differently from a majority of white Americans. For some of us, the civil rights movement in the South was stirring; Reverend King was impressive; Black Power seemed right, the Panthers in Oakland a force for good. Many white Americans felt threatened. They saw the demonstrations and non-violent battles King led as did the UPS reporter Gay Pauley, who questioned King hostilely on air, as ending in blood, and hence dangerous and disruptive. King does not lose his cool, and has a good answer. But probably for many viewers, the questions were more important than the answers, and expressed their point of view.

For the FBI and perhaps much of white America, Black activism was as threatening and dangerous as communism and indistinguishable from it. The FBI feared "the rise of a Black messiah" in the success of MLK.

This film goes easy on J. Edgar Hoover. It describes his private life as "problematic," and quickly runs a montage of him with his male longtime companion. But Sullivan and Hoover together had it in for MLK.

When they ramped up their snooping on King, they soon discovered he had multiple extra-marital relations. From then on this became the major focus of their investigations of King. They gathered more and more data, and in private spoke with horror and disgust of King's sexual affairs, as filthy and disgusting. Coretta Scott King probably knew of them; in one clip she says she knew King better than anyone, as if to say so.

Next important date: November 22, 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy. President Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act as a memorial to Kennedy, and signed it June 2, 1964. In October 1964 MLK received the Nobel Peace Prize. This is shown. There is a bit of sexist condescension in the explanation that Coretta would indeed accompany him to Stockholm, even though she was the mother of four. (They didn't know the Nobel Committee would probably pay for the children to come too.) At the signing of the Civil Rights Act, King is standing close by; J. Edgar Hoover is hovering in front.

You can't say Hoover was merely a typical American in his growing hatred of King, which flamed out after the Nobel Prize, when he publicly declared "Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country." At this point, the film shows, they started sparring, and eventually met up and supposedly spoke amicably.

Eventually there were "fifteen incidents" of MLK with women which the FBI made public, but the press, honoring King's reputation much enhanced by the Nobel Prize, didn't reveal these things. The FBI simply went on hounding King and eventually threatened and confronted him.

Finally the FBI sent King and his wife a tape compendium of recorded moments of him allegedly with other women in sexual situations along with a letter suggesting that he was utterly ruined and should kill himself. Clearly the FBI was off the rails in its persecution of King by this point. Former (2013-2017) FBI chief James Comey in voiceover says "this represents the darkest episode in the FBI's history." One may suspect King is not the only individual hounded this way, but we must take Comey's word on this.

From here on, King reportedly led to an "emotional crisis" for King, and he appeared increasingly agitated, though it's also said that he was too busy to obsess about the FBI's persecution of him. A decisive change came when, reportedly here inspired by a Ramparts article publishing photos of Vietnamese children disfigured or maimed by US napalm, King chose to speak out in opposition to the Vietnam war at last. When he did so decisively in his now well known speech in New York's Riverside Church, this meant he had cut himself off from the White House, as he acknowledged. The film reports that the press berated King for this stand: it shows multiple newspaper op-ed articles against him.

More details follow: notably, COINTELPRO, the FBI's massive program of surveillance and infiltration of political groups judged to be "subversive" (well covered in other documentaries). By this point, it's noted, Black activism was more a target than communism. This film names two Black undercover FBI agents who infiltrated Black activist groups: Ernest Withers, eighteen years an agent, and Jim Harrison.

MLK went on, instrumental in organizing the Poor People's Campaign, a program that was multi-racial, and further reaching than the previous civil rights movement. He was growing and changing (like Malcolm X), and we can only imagine what he might have achieved if he had lived beyond the age of thirty-nine.

King's leadership in the PPC was cut short by his assassination on April 4, 1968, which came the day after one of his best speeches, the film suggests - an alarm about crack-downs on the right to free speech in America that he had observed happening all over the country. For a while, the film ponders this event: clearly, the FBI followed King so closely, why didn't it see an impending assassination and stop it? Indeed.

MLK/FBI, 104 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2020, and showed at New York, as part of which it was screened (virtually) on its NYFF release date, Sept. 25. Also slated for Chicago and putative US theatrical release Jan. 15, 2021.

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