Martin Luther King at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom © The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people from across the US arrived in the nation’s capital for what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There, the Capitol unattacked, Martin Luther King told the crowd he had a dream. The scene plays at the start of the rich new documentary MLK/FBI. By then, a year had already passed since the man introduced as “the moral leader of our nation” had been identified by the FBI as a danger to American society.

To relate the hounding of King and the animus of J. Edgar Hoover, director Sam Pollard makes the screen an archive-only zone. Contemporary voices narrate — among them King’s adviser Clarence Jones — but we are deep in the belly of the past. The era is tumultuous, tapped phones and bugged hotels a rare constant. Pollard is not concerned with their revelations. He is candid about the presumed sexual affairs while coolly tallying the Bureau’s conduct, including the anonymous letter copied to Coretta Scott King, a tape enclosed with a message to her husband: “There is but one way out for you.”

The film subtly widens its gaze: sidebars tackle how black protest was made synonymous with riot, and Hoover’s mastery of pop culture. But if Hollywood showcased the FBI as Hoover wanted it seen, Pollard spotlights another story, one that modern America tells about its past. It finds Hoover cast as rogue grotesque.

In fact, the film argues, he was the voice of Main Street. Hoover was reported to have called King the country’s “most notorious liar”, and a 1964 opinion poll found that half the US public agreed. As the movie drily points out, it is the kind of detail history forgets, but an important one in an America still seemingly surprised by its own body politic.

★★★★☆ 

On demand in the UK from January 15

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