From the persecution of the NAACP and Black Panthers to the brutal assassination of Fred Hampton, the FBI was very actively involved in the Civil Rights era oppression of blacks in the United States. “J. Edgar,” Clint Eastwood’s attempt at a non-controversial cinematic account of John Edgar Hoover’s 37-year reign as the first director of the FBI was superficially crafted to cater to a psuedo post-racial audience. To avoid ignoring Hoover’s racism altogether, which would be too blatant an omission for even Hollywood, the film inserts few lackluster references to the dynamics race and the FBI from the time.
A short scene shows Hoover sending a threatening letter to Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. The focus is more on Hoover’s psychological paranoia of communism without presenting signs of social racism. Hoover recites his memory of his career to a series of young FBI clerks. He makes harsh comments to each one before beginning. In a moment that parallels other, non-offensive, but rude comments to white clerks, Hoover says to a black clerk that he is “proud of” a case in which he worked with the KKK. In a two and a half plus hour movie, this is the only moment that hints at Hoover’s harsh racist views.
The only case we get a thorough view of in the movie is the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which was likely the issue of least significance to the political state of the country as a whole dealt with in Hoover’s entire career. Hoover was the driving force behind the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program launched in 1956, which targeted civil rights, communist, and antiwar political organizations including Students for Democratic Society and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Focused on Hoover’s implied homosexuality and odd behavior, rather than history, “J. Edgar” is an attempt at telling an apolitical story of a very politically charged facet of a very politically turbulent era in American history. The film does not at all expand on the politics of the Cold War, nor the domestic struggles around communism in the McCarthyist era. The film virtually erases race relations from Hoover’s narrative, despite his very publicly racist views.