Capitol riot and ‘MLK/FBI’ show us that Hollywood’s perfect villains have been hiding in plain sight

The fact that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond nearly aggressively enough to credible warnings of the coming insurrection has prompted “difficult discussions” within those agencies,” Post reporters Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky wrote on Jan. 12, adding that those conversations center on “race, terrorism and whether investigators failed to register the degree of danger because the overwhelming majority of participants at the rally were White conservatives fiercely loyal to [President] Trump.”

Put more succinctly by John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism at the New York Police Department, in an appearance on MSNBC on Thursday: “It’s taken us aback to see people who look like ‘normal people’ cross that line.”

Miller’s blunt assessment raises the question of what, exactly, passes for “normal people” today. But we know what they’ve looked like for the past several centuries: White. Male. Christian. “Real Americans” — or at least what people mean when they use that term, usually in the course of insisting why someone else doesn’t qualify.

In fact, the White, male, Christian version of normal was precisely what J. Edgar Hoover was going for when he recruited for the FBI, the investigative agency he ran with an iron fist for nearly 50 years. It’s the beau ideal that served to inspire laudatory portrayals of special agents by the likes of James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart; for an entire generation, the bureau was personified by the preternaturally professional Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who starred in the iconic TV show “The F.B.I.” in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Like many people who grew up watching the series, I only vaguely recall individual episodes of “The F.B.I.,” which was based on real-life cases and mostly dramatized the good guys nabbing the bad guys, whether they were pornographers, forgers or escaped convicts. The program, which Hoover supported, was far more interested in stories about mob bosses and kidnappers than the Ku Klux Klan, the terrorist organization the bureau was infiltrating at the time, to little avail. I certainly don’t remember any episode where they wiretapped and bugged Martin Luther King Jr. to gather salacious material that would disrupt his movement, destroy his reputation and neutralize his power.

That real-life case is deconstructed with precision and graceful storytelling prowess in the documentary “MLK/FBI,” which begins streaming this weekend. In the film, director Sam Pollard examines Hoover’s megalomaniacal quest to defame and defang King, whom he perceived as an existential threat to the capitalist, conservative and — most of all — White social order the FBI was dedicated to preserving. Brilliantly knitting archival images and present-day commentary from firsthand witnesses to history, Pollard weaves a deeply troubling portrait of King being hounded and harassed by the FBI, while the murders of his fellow activists went strangely unsolved.

Pollard also shrewdly demonstrates how Hoover burnished the reputation of his agency through movies and television, which occasionally valorized the FBI’s role in bringing groups like the Klan to justice, even as white supremacist ideology continued to spread. In 1975, FBI Deputy Associate Director James Adams testified before the Senate that the bureau had three times as many “ghetto informants” as confidential sources within the Klan — as good an index as any of the agency’s priorities.

But by 1988, with the release of the outrageously revisionist “Mississippi Burning,” based on the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Americans had been conditioned to believe that FBI agents were the heroes of the civil rights story, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. As Julian Bond said at the time, “These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.” Thanks to Hoover’s PR efforts and cooperative producers, the image of anti-Black racism in America was that of white-sheeted hooligans somewhere down South, not the business-suited guy next door. (Recent films have begun to offer more nuanced views, including Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Shaka King’s upcoming “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the death of Black Panther party leader Fred Hampton.)

Despite the fact that white supremacy was clearly a growing domestic terrorist threat over the past few years, law enforcement has been slow to recognize the urgency — a reluctance whose cost became clear on Jan. 6. Speaking to NPR reporter Dina Temple-Raston on Thursday, former counterterrorism official R.P. Eddy referred to “the invisible obvious,” a combination of bias and moral arrogance that results in self-protective blindness. “It was very hard for these decision-makers and these analysts to realize that people who look just like them could want to commit this kind of unconstitutional violence and could literally try to and want to kill them,” Eddy said.

“The invisible obvious” has had the same effect in Hollywood, which at least since the Cold War has looked for the perfect all-utility villain. With “no-good dirty Commies” decommissioned since the 1990s, screenwriters and studio executives tried their best to find convincing personifications of pure evil that would not perpetuate noxious stereotypes or hoary cliches. Having been sensitized to the poisonous symbolism of trotting out yet one more Arab terrorist or African American drug dealer or pimp, filmmakers cast about for figures everyone could loathe: arms dealers, sex traffickers, garden-variety corporate greedheads. In the superhero realm, the trend has been to make villains into victims, whether it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker being bullied and ridiculed into pathology or “Wonder Woman 1984’s” Maxwell Lord violently overcompensating for the love he never had. If soldiers or cops were depicted negatively, they were more likely to be corrupt outliers than the faces of far-right extremist elements that have finally been exposed in the military and police over the past week.

It turns out that finding the perfect villain wasn’t that hard: they’ve been in our midst for decades, whether they were lurking on the far reaches of the conspiratorial web or watching Fox News at the local pub. They were winning Olympic medals, going to church, wearing fun Hawaiian shirts, servicing swimming pools, selling flowers, fighting fires, walking the beat, maybe even running for Congress.

They look just like “normal people” because they are normal people, at least within the context of America’s long, unresolved history of racism, violence, vigilante individualism and religious zealotry. The fact that they’ve been ignored for so long — by law enforcement and Hollywood alike — shouldn’t stop us from facing the simple and self-evident fact: Too many of our good guys have been the baddies all along.

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