In the documentary “Hopper/Welles” – which premiered at various festivals this past awards circuit – the director responsible for bringing “Easy Rider” to life finds his leftist buttons being nagged and pushed by the thooming cadence of Orson Welles‘ voice, standing is as fictional filmmaking persona Jake “J.J.” Hannaford – who would eventually be played by John Huston in Welles’ posthumous picture, “The Other Side of the Wind.” The more weed one privileged artist rolls up and consumes, the more a conservative glutton pushes back against the cowboy hippie, aiming to force the counter-culture symbol to take a side on various political issues plaguing a country caught at a crossroads. Hopper repeatedly expresses his unwillingness to let his social guard down, to reveal his true beliefs, wary of potential repercussions were he to say the wrong thing to the right person, specifically concerned that J. Edgar Hoover‘s G-Men may come knocking at his door. Welles/Hannaford – difficult to discern where one creative party ends and the masked stage character begins – balks off Hopper’s worries as beyond paranoid, essentially asserting figures like him aren’t important enough to warrant such federal concerns.
Director Sam Pollard‘s essential historical doc, “MLK/FBI” might be about the not-so-distant past, but if 2020 had one hard, cultural lesson to teach us, it’s that far too many white Americans seem unable to admit they house a selfishly hateful prejudice towards people whose everyday existence threatens their warped sense of reality, regardless of whether one’s safety and civil liberties are actually at risk. Stitched together with mostly period black and white footage: Civil rights marches, rallies, national archive documents, newscast reels, and, quite importantly, old Hollywood conspiracy films – ones that often featured government agents in the romanticized hero role – Pollard’s movie is a disquieting look at pre-Privacy Act, paranoid surveillance’s lead-up to systemic racial profiling within U.S. institutions. Closely examining F.B.I. Director Hoover’s “vacuum cleaner information gathering” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a peaceful man whose ability to enlighten, inspire and mobilize poverty-stricken minority communities into non-violent action the Bureau chief feared would fuel “the rise of a Black messiah.”
As the government figurehead of a public awareness campaign which touted the Federal Bureau of Investigation as protectors belonging to the people (don’t tread on them), J. Edgar Hoover sculpting himself as the righteous three-headed guard dog of American society. Seeing little difference between subversive social behavior and radical revolution (class privilege will blur that distinction), he believed that potential influence from the communist party could lead to Dr. King spearheading a “Soviet Negro Republic,” pitting the FBI and much of the country against Black society, claiming it was for their own protection. Whereas – as anyone decent/lucky enough to be afforded a decent education knows – Martin Luther King Jr., the moral leader of this movement, lived by the mantra: “violence is self-defeating,” a philosophy feeling more and more resonant by the day. In an effort to quell the ongoing pacifist threat, Hoover aimed to discredit the political and religious leader by tapping his phone and bugging his home, attempting to gather private intel to slander his character in the eyes of the American public.
As the documentary makes clear, while our nation’s leaders were very aware of this unethical behavior, much of this information did not come to general light until recent FBI documents were declassified. Even at the time he was being spied on by Hoover’s suits, Dr. King himself long maintained the Bureau had “more important and better things to do,” than attempt to attack his character via sexual libel. But following King’s association with Stanley Levison, who had been blacklisted for his communist ties, one of the most sinking scenes of the documentary describes a walk in the White House rose garden, President John F. Kennedy – previously an outspoken supporter of Dr. King – told the Baptist Minister to distance himself from Levison. As the progressive activist was seen as Dr. King’s personal advisor, President Kennedy’s loyalty to the Civil rights leader waned, showing less friendly enthusiasm so as to avoid a spat with Hoover.
Presenting prejudicial acts as logically dictated, national security, the counter-culture era continued to paint glorified myths about Hoover’s G-Men. Pollard’s doc conveying much of the intelligence gathering of the FBI’s wiretappings through footage of old Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers films – men holding receivers intensely at their ears, hovering over a night-light desk. Hoover modeled the sharp, conservative aesthetic of the whole organization around a basic, tall white male in a suit look; being a G-man was both a symbol of status and an excuse to spread racially charged misinformation. Hoover described Dr. King as the most “notorious liar” in America, and many of his supporters ate the words up like little kids do alphabet soup. The Black population was “moving rapidly… asking for too much suddenly.” Martin Luther King expressed it differently; Black people only wished to “move from token integration into overall integration.” The media however, was still rampant with racially skewed cartoons and smear campaigns of cultural deviance, justifying and fabricating excuses for racial exclusion across the country.
A couple other attempts by the Bureau to discredit Dr. King’s moral leadership qualities make up much of the doc’s material (to describe more would be a disservice to the power of the film). None of what the movie reveals is entirely shocking, but that’s precisely what makes it so scary. With the interview subjects of the movie not being physically revealed until the final moments of the film, the documentary’s voice-over talking head approach is affective but imperfectly uneven. It’s difficult to feel the weight of one figure’s recounting over another because we’re given little comparative context as the information is doled out. The reasons for this are similarly illuminated by the closing minutes of the movie, but it’s a strangely wobbly statement for the film to leave audiences with, considering how the doc approaches its subject. The ending is asking a very valid question but the act of inquisition feels at odds with the movie’s overall design. Still, it doesn’t detract from what makes the documentary such a suspenseful and essential watch.
Appropriately often moving like a heart-pulsing political thriller, “MLK/FBI,” deserves a place on the documentary shelf beside works such as Ava DuVernay‘s “13th.” Pollard’s film isn’t the same level of slap you in the face awake, but it addresses internally imbedded issues in a manner that is both accessibly informative and formally impressive. A couple of privileged (if well-meaning) white dudes in straggly hippie beards can safely smoke themselves into a cloud of socialist ramblings, but if the right Black citizen expressed these same beliefs they’d find themselves on a most-wanted list. “I can’t promise you that you can avoid this.” King says at one point in the documentary, after describing all the various, difficult prejudicial situations his brethren may find themselves in, all due to expressing the need for base human liberties; whether it be in private or public, it doesn’t make a difference to the paranoid white man.
*MLK/FBI will be released January 15 by IFC Films*