Since we first began working on “American Gangster,” the idea of profiling J. Edgar Hoover has been floating around. Using the levers of official power, Hoover made the Federal Bureau of Investigation his personal gang, particularly in pursuing an agenda of White supremacy that began with his role in the deportation of Marcus Garvey, through his snooping on Dr. King’s sex life and his counter-intelligence campaign against the Black Panthers and numerous Black leaders. What we’ve been able to do with this episode is connect the dots to Hoover’s lengthy career as an enemy of Black advancement to show a pattern of behavior with the U.S. government’s top law enforcement agency as his tool.
Henry Shipper, who’s done many of the hardest hitting “American Gangster” episodes, found it wasn’t as hard to indict Hoover as he expected.
“I was really surprised,” Henry says, “when I asked Nicolas Katzenbach [former U.S. attorney general] what the FBI did right during the Civil Rights Movement, he replied, ‘I would have a hard time saying there was anything they did very right.’ I was so startled; I circled around a few minutes later and asked him again. This time, he gave me a bite that’s in the show: ‘It’s very hard to say anything good about the FBI. I uh, ¬ I don’t think it’s a question of how much good you can say about them. The question is how much bad you can say about them.’”
Henry’s first draft script was 75 pages, and the show could easily have gone two hours. He says, “The nitty-gritty on MLK was unbelievable, including serious plans by FBI to replace King with their own designated leader. They actually settled on a rising young attorney, Sam Pierce, who would later serve in Reagan’s Cabinet.”
Revelations like this are provided throughout the J. Edgar Hoover episode, making this one of the most profound shows we’ve done in three seasons. With “American Gangster,” we always feel like we are providing a shadow history of the United States and the Black community. No one’s shadow loomed larger and more destructive over us in the 20th century than that of the late director of the FBI.