Monday, November 14, 2011

J. Edgar

J. Edgar Hoover, 1961

J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson sitting in beach lounge chairs, 1939

J. EDGAR                    C-                   
USA  (137 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Clint Eastwood

I am…a revolutionary.                       
—Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, murdered by an FBI raid

What is overlooked here is how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the most powerful police organization in the country, was so compelled by his reactionary beliefs to continually violate the law himself, even resort to murder in order to, in his views, protect American citizens when pursuing Black Panthers in the late 60’s, as evidenced by the December 4, 1969 assassination of Party Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark in Chicago, including a cover up of the police actions, claiming they were firing in self-defense in a dawn 4:30 am FBI raid into Hampton’s private residence, supposedly to serve a warrant for a weapons violation.  According to a forensics report, 99 bullets were found entering the apartment from the outside, while only 1 bullet was ever fired from inside, hardly the barrage of “an onslaught of bullets” reported by the police to justify their actions. 

All the Chicago officers on the Hampton raid were vindicated, where only after a period of ten years were they finally held responsible for violating Hampton’s civil rights.  Over the course of time, this also led to the FBI revelations that they actually directed the State’s Attorney’s raid, based on diagrams provided by FBI informant William O’Neal, who was paid $30,000 by the FBI and was Hampton’s bodyguard, the man who actually provided the exact location of Fred Hampton’s bed, which was the target of the majority of the police bullets.  An autopsy also revealed that there were barbiturates found in Hampton’s stomach, who was known to be ardently drug and alcohol free, suggesting he was drugged the night before by O’Neal, who served him kool-aid and hot dogs the night before, corroborating the testimony of Hampton’s girl friend in the apartment who claimed he did not respond and remained groggy throughout the raid, only lifting his head an inch or so off the bed before he was shot and killed. 

Black Panthers were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI watch list as public enemy number one, calling them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," infiltrated by informants, oftentimes black police officers, and eventually the entire organization nationwide was hunted down and targeted for arrest and/or death “by any means necessary,” to borrow a phrase of the Panthers organization themselves.  Bobby Hutton of the Oakland branch was killed, Eldridge Cleaver fled the country, Huey P. Newton was arrested for manslaughter, H. Rap Brown for murder, and one by one the leaders were taken out in a secret FBI spy operation against American citizens called COINTELPRO that was only uncovered years later under the Freedom of Information Act.  By 1970, 34 known Panthers were dead as a result of police raids and shoot-outs, while the rising costs of legal fees eventually ended the existence of the Black Panther Party.  Hoover and his organization have never been held accountable for their own criminal illegality, which is why there continues to be a major distrust factor of police in black communities.  Informant William O'Neal eventually threw himself into the lanes of the Eisenhower expressway, committing suicide on Martin Luther King Day in 1990.  There is no mention of any of this in the film, which also neglects to mention Hoover's active contribution to the Red Scare McCarthyist Era of the 1950's. 

The film does show that from December 1963 until his death in 1968, the FBI wiretapped the phones of Reverand Martin Luther King Jr, claiming that one of King's closest advisers, Stanley Levison, a white New York lawyer and businessman, was a top-level member of the American Communist Party.  As it turned out Levison had extensive ties with the Communist Party in the 40’s and 50’s but departed from the organization by the time he met King in the early 60’s.  Nonetheless, a wiretap was ordered on October 10, 1963 making Martin Luther King Jr. the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader.  The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness, where as early as 1962 Hoover himself penned an FBI memorandum, “King is no good,” claiming Dr. King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” Shortly afterwards in 1963, Time magazine chose Dr. King as the “Man of the Year,” and later in 1964 he won the Nobel peace prize, an honor which elicited Hoover's comment that “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one,” calling Dr. King the “most notorious liar” in the country.

The FBI scrutinized Dr. King's tax returns, monitored his sexual and financial affairs, and even tried to establish that he had a secret foreign bank account.  Religious leaders and institutions were contacted in an effort to undermine their support of him, and unfavorable material was “leaked” to the press. Bureau officials contacted members of Congress, and special “off the record” testimony was prepared for Hoover's use before the House Appropriations Committee.  Efforts were made to turn White House and Justice Department Officials against Dr. King by barraging them with unfavorable reports and, according to one witness, even offering to play for a White House official explicit sex tape recordings that the Bureau considered embarrassing to King, tapes that just happened to be delivered to Dr. King with threats of greater public exposure the night before his Nobel prize speech.  Despite extensive surveillance, the FBI was never able to portray King as a dangerous radical or find any direct funding or other links between King and the Communist party.

This film, easily one of the ugliest looking films ever seen (in more ways than one), written by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote MILK (2008), is largely taken from Hoover’s own 1972 memoirs which he dictates throughout the film accentuating a more tender side of Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio in a horrible accent, not just a ruthless, powerful man in America who rose to the directorship of the FBI from 1935 until his death in 1972.  It was only after he died that America learned Hoover was a cross dresser, a closet homosexual, who may have repressed his lifelong love affair with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), the Associate Director of the FBI from 1930 until just after Hoover died in 1972, the man who inherited Hoover’s estate after he died, which amounted to a little more than half a million dollars and Hoover’s home.  Ironically Hoover was outspoken against homosexuality and refused to allow gays, women, and very few blacks to become FBI agents, and in fact spread defamatory false rumors that Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was gay.  And while these personal revelations may be salaciously interesting, they prove to be something of a distraction, and pure speculation, where adding a vulnerable and more humanized dimension to his personality, a secretly repressed love affair that Hoover never publicly acknowledged during his lifetime, and for which there is no corroborating evidence, has a way of diverting attention away from the corrupt ruthlessness in which he ran his office, known for blackmailing Presidents, threatening to expose and ruin the careers of anyone who would dare attempt to challenge him, surviving largely unscathed in his own personal domain as head of the FBI, remaining outside of public scrutiny for 37 years, collecting and consolidating power in his office long after a series of Presidents came and went. 

Placing the focus on Hoover’s love life takes away from the fact that this man singlehandedly destroyed lives throughout his lifetime, altering the possibilities of social change in history, where the damage he caused in arrests, murder, and intimidation was far greater than that of any terrorist, where he was the man in charge of all the slimy, underhanded dirty tricks and lies, which Hoover felt was far more effective than the truth, used to undermine the reputations and public effectiveness of others, yet he remained in charge of the nation’s highest law officers, continuing to collect information that he could use “against” others in his own private crusade on public decency, an unchecked monster that himself became that threat to the internal security of our nation, an embarrassing stain in the nation’s history that this film steers clear of because Hoover led the fight against Communism in America and continues to be lauded in right wing circles as a patriot.  A dull and drab Clint Eastwood movie that fictionalizes certain aspects of his life is no substitute for the real thing, which would be an exposé that reveals the truth about just what the man was responsible for in his lifetime, revealing all the skeletons in the closet.  Despite modernizing crime fighting technology, such as creating a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories, he also used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and routinely used illegal methods to collect evidence.  There were no Black Panthers and no one from the King family offering their views on how this lone man dedicated his life to work tirelessly not only to discredit the hopes and dreams of others and the movements they advocated, but ultimately he vowed to literally destroy lives.  In 2001, Nevada Senator Harry Reid sponsored an amendment to strip Hoover's name from the FBI Headquarters named after him in Washington, D.C. claiming “J. Edgar Hoover's name on the FBI building is a stain on the building,” however the Senate never adopted the amendment.

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