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Review: Documentary tells of J. Edgar Hoover’s effort to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.

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from Datebook | San Francisco Arts & Entertainment Guide.

It is hard to wrap our minds around it now, but in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded as a controversial figure, and J. Edgar Hoover was considered an American hero. More than half a century later, Hoover, the first director of the FBI, is the symbol of government overreach, whose abuse of power was never more flagrant than in his longtime surveillance of King, the subject of the documentary “MLK/FBI.”

The outlines of the story are generally known. King, who for a public figure started off fairly trusting and naïve, had FBI informants among his close staff. His phones were tapped, and so were his hotel rooms. In a notorious incident — one former FBI agent calls it the bureau’s lowest moment — they taped King having sex with another woman and sent the recording to King’s wife. Included was a suggestion that he kill himself.

The documentary — available video on demand Friday, Jan. 15 — fills in the details. Apparently, the FBI started taking special notice of King when he befriended Stanley Levison, a businessman with close ties to the communist party. Surveillance of Levison led to surveillance of King, and as King grew in power and influence, Hoover worried that the civil rights leader might turn out to be the person Hoover feared most — what he called “a black messiah.”

The movie takes us back to a period in American history in which anything progressive or challenging, not to mention anyone with a new idea, stood a decent chance of being labeled a “communist.” It’s almost as if, for a large segment of the public, calling someone a communist was a particularly effective way of expressing disapproval.

The documentary includes headlines from serious publications hypothesizing that King’s movement was being infiltrated or steered by communists, or at least that it was unwittingly serving a communist agenda. In another scene, we see King on a news show, getting interviewed by an ostensibly reputable journalist, who suggests that King’s non-violent protests are actually causing violence, because he’s pushing white people too far. It’s tantamount to asking, “Why do you keep forcing us to assault you?” Thus, we get an idea of the America within which King had to operate.

The movie brings out a fact that’s less known, which is that King and Hoover clashed publicly at one point. Right after King had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover referred to him in an interview as a phony. This led to a back-and-forth in the newspapers, followed by a much-publicized meeting (behind closed doors) and a supposed rapprochement. But by then, Hoover had every intention to keep spying on King.

Though one can’t know for sure, the documentary expresses near certainty that, when Hoover was saying that King was phony, he was thinking about the distance between King’s saintly image and his sex life. The movie treads lightly here, but hints that King’s extra-marital affairs weren’t occasional, but frequent and bacchanalian. At one point, the movie refers to King’s being with two or three women at the same time.

Filmmaker Sam Pollard does right to be careful here, in that we’re not hearing the tapes ourselves. All we have are the FBI agents’ reports about the tapes. One of the reports, for example, says that King watched a woman getting raped and thought it was funny. That would be difficult to discern from an audio tape. In any case, the actual tapes are under seal, but they will become available in 2027.

When that happens, it will be cause for another documentary.

M“MLK/FBI”: Documentary. Featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover. Directed by Sam Pollard. (Unrated. 104 minutes. On video on demand starting Friday, Jan. 15.

  • Mick LaSalle

    Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic. Email: <a href=””></a> Twitter: @MickLaSalle

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