The MLK (Martin Luther King) story is well documented throughout American fiction. His ‘I have a dream speech’ has become something of a linguistic phenomenon for generations exploring a brighter future, where equality is achieved for future generations; a utopian world where people are given opportunities to excel without the drawbacks that race has placed on non-white people throughout modern history.
In this new documentary, “(MLK/FBI)” we are taken into a living nightmare, that I was partially privy to, thanks to the works of Ava DuVernay with David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King in SELMA (It is still haunting that Oyelowo was not afforded an Oscar nomination for his performance) but I digress.
Academy nominee, Sam Pollards’ black and white documentary symbolically and factually provides us with the sinister realisation that King was indeed the subject and target of J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI establishment, built on the foundations of obtaining intelligence on anyone who was deemed ‘subversive’ and a threat to the American way of life. The declassified files are available and what they reveal is disturbing but not entirely shocking.
Black (Negro) subversion: The ideology that black people who speak out against white supremacy or any other injustice are extremist, dangerous and to be destroyed.
In the FBI files, it appears that Hoover expressed grave concern about King as a subversive character and that he was the most ‘dangerous liar..negro in America’ and indeed a dangerous threat to the American agenda. He became a walking target for the FBI and subconsciously he knew it.
The film then unveils something I wasn’t aware of – Kings friendship with white communist party member Sam Levison and how this lands on the FBI’s radar. Worse than a black messiah, was a black messiah who had ties with a communist. Even though Levisons communist activities are not deemed as a concern to the FBI, they decide to focus in on Kings relationship with Levison and record his every movement.
The tapes begin to unearth another matter, the private issue of King’s love life. This particular finding quickly becomes the focus of the investigation, in an attempt to dismantle King’s public image as a husband, father, man of faith and leader.
The ideology of the black male in America was the negro male is/was sub-human, a sexual predator, an unruly beast that requires taming back the orderly and dutiful white male – a narrative that was carefully orchestrated during transatlantic slavery and emboldened the horrifying act (amongst others) of castration (the removal of the male genitals) as a physical, spiritual and symbolic way of ensuring that the black male was powerless.
This characterisation of the black male was then used in early Hollywood depictions on screen and still continues to be an image that lives long in the memory of non-black people when looking at the disproportionate representation of black men in the judicial system, globally. This same ideology was constructed against MLK by Hoover to justify the use of excessive torment to unravel and intimidate King. In many ways, the FBI had King by the proverbial balls, and where squeezing him from all angles.
King’s personal indiscretion was used to vilify and essentially ruin his self esteem, public image and effectiveness. At one time, he was sent a message from the FBI that he should ‘just kill himself’ in an attempt to suggest that he was finished and would be publicly rejected once the tape recordings became public knowledge.
Yet, still he was able to rise, with the unpredictable bestowment of the Noble Peace Prize.
King’s eventual unveiling was his deep concern for the Vietnam war. The images of children disfigured by the American bombs drove him to compromise his relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was an ally of King’s up until this point.
In MLK’s words: “There comes a point, where silence is betrayal”.
Those words were spoken with resonance on social media throughout 2020 in light of the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who was executed by a police officer in the street in-front of his child. The world descended into empathy and examined the fact that when we are silent about matters, or sit on the fence – we are indeed siding with the oppressor.
The sad reality is that, like King and many black people, who often speak out and risk their lives for the betterment of society, nobody is willing to do the same for us.
Black people are often the first ones on the front line, sacrificing their lives and livelihoods for the wider society, yet the same support is often not reciprocated.
King speaks of the lasting effects of 244 years slavery in America, and the hypocrisy of telling blacks to ‘boot strap success without providing boots’. Again, the narrative of the black male and his family as lazy and unwilling to work hard to obtain the ‘American dream’ as another falsehood that has plagued the leadership of men and women that emerged before and after MLK’s assassination.
Freedom and famine for the negro in America has systemically and abhorrently held back the black family from true freedom and a slice of the American pie, which was built using the hands and labour of the African, brought and sold to American slave owners.
This film is an important examination on black prosperity and the burden of leadership in the belly of the beast – that is America. Pollard handles the magnitude of MLK’s personal and professional prowess with delicacy and fairness.
Watch it today, out on virtual theatres and online via Apple TV and HMV.
Written by Dr Clare Anyiam-Osigwe B.E.M, director/writer