Issue #29: All's Fair In Love And War 💣
MLK/FBI + Lover's Rock
It's time for the wind-down. Thanksgiving is behind us, Christmas is just ahead. It's that time of year when we're just holding on for the last few weeks of the year and taking stock of how our lives have changed as we've grown older. We don't need to tell you that this year has been hell, but there have been opportunities for lightness, and reflection too and it wouldn't be right if we didn't acknowledge them.
So this week we're having it both ways. First, Zosha on MLK/FBI and the tense and antagonistic relationship the U.S. has always had with its movement leaders. Then briefly, Cate on Lovers Rock, the second in Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology for Amazon. Enjoy!
Zosha on MLK/FBI
Written by: Benjamin Hedin and Laura Tomaselli
Directed by: Sam Pollard
Distributed by: IFC Films
Early on in MLK/FBI, one of the faceless talking heads condemns the FBI’s surveillance and mistreatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The voice is measured but firm, the way you expect voices to be in documentaries on subjects like this. “What we’re best at is convincing ourselves of our own righteousness,” it says. “I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.”
If you know the voice, it might be even more galling to hear that statement said aloud: Here is James Comey, FBI director from 2013 through 2017 when he was fired by Trump, telling us that this is the darkest part of the Bureau’s history. And yet, what MLK/FBI lays out so clearly is that this is not just a fraction of the FBI’s history it is the framework for it, the foundation upon which it was built. J. Edgar Hoover did these things fairly openly, and not only did many people in government tolerate them, they supported them. Robert F. Kennedy granted a wider order on MLK because he was concerned about King’s continued closeness to an activist friend who was also a communist. Because of that, Hoover was able to drastically widen the scope on surveilling MLK, eventually sending him a recording of his affairs with a note that he should kill himself, lest he be embarrassed by their release.
The beauty of MLK/FBI is how it stretches the scope of MLK’s legacy beyond just a speech, a march, a bus protest. It firmly connects his attackers backwards and forwards in time, emphasizing (without underlining too hard) how his life was just another chapter in a long, long, long book of American racism. His sexual activity galled Hoover — who infamously and allegedly kept a very tight lid on his own sex life — and represented a sort of radicalism that (however much something Coretta Scott King didn’t deserve) offended him. The movie overtly draws a line to the constant policing of Black men’s sexuality in the U.S., wielded as a weapon on behalf of (and sometimes by) white women to keep them in a lower rung of society. That King was able to continue living and inspiring drove the FBI mad, per MLK/FBI documents and evidence. They couldn’t understand that he represented more than the hypocrisy of extramarital affair; his legacy is Black Panther Party, it’s miscegenation phobia, it’s racism ongoing and baked into everything the U.S. does.
MLK/FBI hinges on too dense to take in on a single viewing. That’s through no real fault of its own — in fact, the film itself stays fairly brisk and savvy about how it uses the limited purview of the archival footage it has. It’s more that it is a giant info dump, laid out in one clip after the next. It’s easy to miss a stray detail here and there about how pernicious the MLK surveillance was.
And yet, the movie leaves time to project this new understanding onto the faces we see — onto King’s face in particular. MLK/FBI is judicious with who it shows: the talking heads are only shown in the final moments. Even then it’s selectively, allowing us to fully take in historian David Garrow’s pause before he answers how he as a historian thinks about King’s importance. (“It changes over time.”) Instead, the movie lets the battle of the minds play out through dueling King and Hoover interviews and photos, backed with B-roll from pop culture where necessary.
Sometimes it leaves a lacking feeling, but more often than not it’s refreshing, even when the clip isn’t new. We go beyond the “I Have a Dream” moment and into King reminding a white interviewer that no other race endured chattel slavery the way Black people did, and how that inheritance still weighs on how they’re seen by white society. It’s strangely gratifying to see Hoover so clearly lie about how his agency handled wiretapping. There’s power in watching footage of Lyndon B. Johnson’s press conference overlaid with phone recordings of him talking about how to handle MLK.
The limited material can sometimes mean the movie catches on select things, getting stuck in a short but overextended montage of King doing one select thing without really deepening the images at all. But overall it feels like every one of these moments ultimately has good cause, each pulled thread further unravels the chaotic tapestry of lies beneath the U.S.
Another one of the many voices narrating the film mentions that this movie was only made possible by the unveiling of new, previously classified documents from the FBI. It ends noting that the earliest the next batch of documents will be revealed is in February 2027. “Up on the web, one has to confront them,” the voice says. “One cannot pretend they don’t exist.” And yet, if MLK/FBI leaves us with any legacy, it’s that white society has done a bang-up job of pretending these things are different than they seem.
Hoover wanted a very distinct man (and yes I mean man) for the job of an FBI agent: about 6-foot, white, and conservative. He had ideas about white men as the “natural actors, natural doers,” and these racist notions have informed and governed our society ever since. Hoover was in office from 1924 through 1972, serving presidents from Coolidge through Nixon. He perfected an ethos of lawmaking as guilt by association, rumor, and gossip. If we can’t recognize that he is more than just a shameful part of the history of the FBI and is instead threaded through every molecule of it, then we can’t hope to grow.
Cate on Lovers Rock
Written by: Steve McQueen and Courttia Newland
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
What a joy it is to see a body move. Limbs and hips, head and pelvis, arms and lips all in sync and ready to match the thump-thump of a deep bass. Swaying side to side, slow then fast then slow again, matched beat for beat with a partner all of 10 minutes old. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock dives deep into the British West Indian bashment scene, excising a slice of life full to the brim with joy and specificity.
More than anything, Lovers Rock made me miss home. The idiosyncratic courtesies of moving through a dance floor remain familiar, years after I have stopped practicing them. The music, the vibe, the dynamics all create a picturesque snapshot of a culture that is mined for profit to this day. But here, in this small, packed room lined with twisting bodies, the music is ours alone.
Lovers Rock is light enough on a plot that it feels inconsequential to mention, but at its heart is the budding love story between Franklyn Cooper (Micheal Ward) and Martha Trenton (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn). A whispered invitation, a coy laugh—that’s all it takes to set things in motion between them, and the tender touches of their bodies accurately relay the stinging intimacy of the dancefloor.
What this film does well is backdrop the cultural and political climate of the time. Though the film is bookended by preparations for its central party and the lovers’ escape from it, there are still intrusions from white violence and black patriarchy—a handful of idle white hoodlums harasses Martha on the street before being scared off by the party’s bouncer, the police drive by the residence flashing sirens and Martha laters stops an attempted rape. Even though an idyllic refuge exists for black people within the boundaries of the party, once they breach its limits, they are no longer safe from the vagaries of the world.
I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s exquisite midpoint—an acapella rendition of Janet Kay’s "Silly Games" by the party’s participants. The scene slows down and the music drops out leaving room only for pure unadulterated joy, shared by friends and strangers alike, taken by the communal experience of that fleeting, perfect moment. The extended scene makes the film’s purpose loud and clear—to witness and commemorate the possibility and tender bliss of blackness.
All in all, Lovers Rock is more feeling than film—buoyed by its namesake musical genre, it floats in and out of unreality, making solid the ethereal pleasures of a communal experience. It will be a while, but I can’t wait until it’s safe to let loose, catch a vibe and tune into the exact frequency of a beautiful stranger, and the wonderful possibility of all that comes with deciding to be as one for a few blissful moments in time.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: This week I was coming out of my Netflix fact-checking, so primed to read something that jives a lot with my personal understanding of the exploitation of Selena. Adored this piece on Pride & Prejudice and *that* hand scene, and what it represents in the broader landscape. Loved this dive into Industry's most interesting character, since it's a show I find myself weirdly hypnotized by. Once it gets going this look at how our real life is outpacing our need for monsters to externalize our fears. And if nothing made sense to you in 2020, try looking back on it through the prism of the internet.
Cate: This week I've been knee-deep in The Crown, so this examination of the fictionalization of real people's lives was fascinating. I also enjoyed this essay about how much Tik Tok helped us cope this year. Finally, prompted by the release of Netflix's Mank, I finally made time to watch Citizen Kane. This Vulture examination of how it came to be known as the "greatest film ever made" was interesting and instructive for a contrarian like myself.
Next week, it's (nearly) Christmas, so we'll be bringing you a tiny bit of seasonal cheer for issue #30, our last of the year.
Still chugging along and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3