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It’s not new to suggest that the roots of US white supremacy extend deep into its systems of law enforcement — this year alone demonstrates the continued suppression of protests for Black lives, plain for all to see. Two documentaries out of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival deal with the state’s suppression of dissent: Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI and Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State.
MLK/FBI reminds us that while the peaceful teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. are today often upheld by white liberals as an ideal of protest, in his time, King was seen as dangerous and too revolutionary, while FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was broadly popular. The Bureau capitalized on the establishment (and public) distaste for King’s civil rights campaigns to spy on and harass him. Hoover feared what he referred to as a “Black messiah” — his phraseology hinting at the intertwining of his religious beliefs and his anti-Blackness. This obsession spiraled into suspicion of anyone who could be considered a “subversive,” and through this, the film illustrates how long the US surveillance state has been in operation.
Having worked as an editor on many Spike Lee films, including 4 Little Girls, Pollard’s organization of his material is masterful — not just in his journalistic assembly of various documents and news footage, but also in his incorporation of pop culture objects (and even plain propaganda) from the era to illustrate its ingrained attitudes. The film draws a straightforward narrative, painting a clear picture of Hoover’s obsessive white supremacist campaign against King. It’s not radical to point out that the FBI has long engaged in unconstitutional acts and even violence against dissenters, but Pollard reminds us that this institution is not an outlier from the will of the state, but rather acts in accordance with it.
Enemies of the State deals with similar matter, but takes place in the more recent past. The film explores the case of Matt DeHart, a former US Air National Guard intelligence analyst who worked with Anonymous and WikiLeaks to make public classified information. While MLK/FBI eschews talking heads and reenactment almost entirely in favor of archival materials, Kennebeck operates more in the Errol Morris school (indeed, he’s credited as an executive producer), with drama and editorializing added via reenactments. These reenactments are sometimes reminiscent of The Arbor’s use of actors lip-syncing to interview audio, though here utilizing courtroom records.
But, especially after the leanness of Pollard’s film, those dramatic embellishments feel like bloat. Kennebeck’s timeline of events, the numerous players, and their ideas about the truth of the case are a confusing mess. In contrast to the precision of MLK/FBI, Enemies of the State is more speculative, mostly due to the relative absence of a paper trail it has to work with. It must rely on anecdote to build its narrative, but this leads to obfuscation rather than clarity. By leaning into the ambiguity of DeHart’s story, the film becomes vague and nebulous, with little to offer beyond its subjects reiterating how complicated this all is, which is self-evident to the audience. The film is a long and winding road arriving nowhere, as opposed to Pollard’s more direct and illuminating route toward a deeper understanding of the US government’s history of oppression.