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In Focus: At the IFFB’s Fall Focus, King and Zappa stand out

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I have a dream speech."IFC Films

The Independent Film Festival Boston’s 6th Annual Fall Focus Film Festival (Oct. 29-Nov. 2) features documentaries about two prominent figures from the 1960s — Martin Luther King Jr. and Frank Zappa — who would seem to have little in common. But in some ways, they are much alike.

We are familiar with the story of King as the “moral leader of our nation,” which is how he was introduced before he delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. That scene opens Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI,” but Pollard is more concerned with the less familiar story of the campaign of surveillance and intimidation waged against King by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.


The festival’s closing film, it starts streaming Nov. 2 at 10 a.m.

Not long after King’s famed speech an FBI memo described “the moral leader of our nation” as “the most dangerous Negro” in America. King’s friendship with Stanley Levison, a civil rights attorney and former communist, had aroused Hoover’s suspicions. He brought his concerns to President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general — who had until then been sympathetic to King’s cause — and convinced them that he was a security threat.

Robert Kennedy authorized surveillance of King, but when wiretaps and bugging devices detected sexual improprieties, the FBI switched its focus from surveillance to character assassination, psychological warfare, and blackmail. Frustrated by the media’s refusal to publicize the agency’s dirt, it confronted King with the information, suggesting he commit suicide.

Although Hoover’s campaign did not sway King’s allies, some turned against him in 1967 when he decided to denounce the Vietnam War. Aware of the hostility such a position would arouse, King had remained silent on the subject until he read an article in Ramparts magazine about the toll the war took on Vietnamese children. It compelled him to speak out.


This did not sit well with King’s former ally Lyndon Johnson, who was determined to win the war. Thereafter Hoover’s campaign against King was unchecked. FBI surveillance teams followed King until the very end; they were on the scene at the Memphis motel where King was shot. They did not intervene.

Drawing on recently released FBI files, Pollard’s sobering, illuminating, and infuriating documentary evinces a tone of objectivity by having his interviewees — who include King associates Clarence Jones and Andrew Young and former FBI head James Comey — speak in voice-over, withholding visuals of them until the end. He underscores the cultural context of the conflict between King and Hoover by intercutting clips from movies and TV shows of the time that glorified the FBI. With its ominous soundtrack and use of abrupt black screens to presage dark events, the film evokes a mood of inevitability and gloom.

The complex, gnomic, and playful artist in Alex Winter’s “Zappa” (the festival’s closing night film) seems at first to have little connection with the dire politics of the 1960s. Songs like “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” and “Peaches en Regalia” don’t have much to do with civil rights or the Vietnam War — though they do tap into the antic, Dadaist spirit of the counterculture.

Frank Zappa rehearsing for a concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1969.Ron Case

But much of Zappa’s music, however cryptically, denounces tyranny even as it defies categorization. Throughout his life he supported political causes. In the film’s first scene Zappa (who died of prostate cancer in 1993, at 52) performs in Prague to celebrate the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution. In 1985 he testified before the Senate to condemn the Parents Music Resource Center’s plans to censor rock lyrics (he later included excerpts from the hearing on an album). Though Zappa’s obsessive, perfectionist art can be surreal and solipsistic, it springs from an innate hatred of oppression.


He grew up and spent his young adulthood in small towns where he experienced prejudice and exclusion because of his taste for such forbidden pleasures as jazz, R&B, and the music of avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. When he started a band that included Black musicians he was ostracized “by cowboys and racists,” Zappa recalled. Struggling to make a living with a recording studio in Cucamonga, Calif., he was sentenced to six months in prison on bizarre obscenity charges (“probably the most informative part of my political training,” he says).

After moving to Los Angeles, Zappa formed a band, the Mothers of Invention. There he stood out because of his unclassifiable music and disdain for drugs. He moved to New York in 1966 and played for five months at the Garrick Theater until he established himself as the hippest rocker around and developed an intense and growing following. Returning to LA, he bought a house in Laurel Canyon, which became a rock music mecca, drawing a coterie of admirers that included John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton.


And that’s just the 1960s. The next three decades included as many chameleonic creative changes as those of David Bowie, another Zappa fan.

Winters tries to emulate, with some success, Zappa’s style and aesthetics. Split-second montages combine snips of home movies, interviews, and performances — distilled from over a thousand hours of material found in Zappa’s personal vault — with clips from newsreels, campy sci-fi movies, and the hallucinatory and obscene claymation shorts made by Zappa with Bruce Bickford. Madcap and exhausting, “Zappa” will immerse you in the mind of a genius; and you may never be the same again.

It starts streaming Oct. 31 at 10 a.m. Ticketholders will have access to a conversation with Alex Winter that day, at 4 p.m.

Go to iffboston.org/series/fall-focus.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.