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The Villification of a Hero: A TIFF Review of ‘MLK/FBI’

September 15, 2020Ben MK

We live in an era where the American civil rights movement is as relevant as it's ever been. In fact, today's social justice movements would likely not even exist had it not been for outspoken civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. But while King is now a widely celebrated national hero, there was a time when he was essentially regarded as public enemy number one — at least in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Enter MLK/FBI, an in-depth documentary examining the FBI's years-long surveillance program targeting the civil rights leader and the bureau's systematic attempts to discredit his character. From King's suspected ties to the Communist party to his objections about the use of American taxpayer dollars to fund the Vietnam War, the film uses archival footage and newly declassified documents to explore the motivations behind Hoover's vilification of King. And along with the help of subject matter experts such as "Bearing the Cross" author David Garrow and "G-Man: J Edgar Hoover and the American Century" author Beverly Gage, director Sam Pollard shows how the FBI's treatment of King fits into the government's broader attitude towards pro-Black organizations in general.

As for the FBI's actual surveillance recordings of King, they can't be made public until 2027. But in the meantime, MLK/FBI offers up plenty of food for thought, especially in regards to the current Black Lives Matter movement and for those who agree with King's sentiments that the time has come when silence is betrayal.

MLK/FBI screens under the TIFF Docs programme at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 44 min.

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