History and American studies professor Beverly Gage has lent her expertise on former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation J. Edgar Hoover to the new documentary “MLK/FBI.”
“MLK/FBI” examines the FBI’s campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King Jr., which began in the early ’60s and culminated with King’s assassination in 1968. The film opened at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and at the New York International Film Festival on Monday.
“Beverly Gage was an instrumental part of the film in illustrating the forces that made J. Edgar Hoover who he was,” screenwriter and editor Laura Tomaselli wrote to the News in an email. “Understanding the figure at the head of the FBI for 48 years is crucial to understanding the work the agency did, what they felt they were protecting, and the political climate of America for half a decade.”
Gage is a national authority on Hoover and the FBI — she has written on the topic in The New York Times and The Washington Post and expects to soon release a biography of Hoover entitled “G-Man.” She famously discovered an unredacted copy of an anonymous letter the FBI sent to King. The letter threatened to expose his extramarital affairs, discredit his authority and drive him out of civic engagement.
Gage, however, does not consider these topics her main interest.
“I think my real area of study is American politics more generally and the relationship between the government and social movements,” she told the News. “Hoover just happens to be a very good vehicle for thinking about all of that because the FBI was engaged in so much surveillance activity.”
This disparity between the world’s perspective on Gage and her own self-perception parallels a major theme in the film: The dominant narrative is not always the truth.
One of the documentary’s goals was to convey how unpopular King was when he was alive. According to Gage, after Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” a Gallup Poll reported that 50 percent of Americans aligned with Hoover while only about 16 percent sided with King. The rest were unsure what to think. A similar poll from the same year discovered that 45 percent of Americans held a negative perception of King.
Screenwriter and producer of the film Benjamin Hedin thinks the new project “rescues [King] from this universal saintliness he enjoys now.” He added in an interview with the News that while the film humanizes King, it also reveals “a lot of unsavory stuff” such as his extramarital affairs and his alleged but unsubstantiated communist ties.
Director of the film Sam Pollard, a veteran documentarian, exhorts viewers to “challenge the history books, challenge the myths about the FBI, challenge all of it.” King’s story has long been one of veneration, but according to Pollard and Hedin, that narrative obfuscates the truth that Hoover and the coalition of middle-class white people he represented did not welcome King in their definition of America.
The documentary team emphasized that the issues King faced still exist today. Hedin told the News that “the patron saint” of the project is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick because “his protest revealed with such clarity and sadness how menacing the prospect of Black peaceful protest still is for white people.”
According to Gage, studying the history of bodies like the FBI is “incredibly important” in the process of analyzing existing “policing and institutional and security structures.” She noted ongoing disputes between President Donald Trump and the FBI and said that these conflicts cannot be fully understood without historical context.
“MLK/FBI” is available to rent through Film at Lincoln Center until Sept. 26. The film will have a theatrical release in January 2021.
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