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America Has to Come to a Reckoning: Director Sam Pollard on MLK/FBI

Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI” addresses what the FBI’s former director James Comey calls “the darkest chapter in the bureau’s history”: the deliberate and systematic surveillance and harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based in part on newly-declassified files, “MLK/FBI” has generated potent Oscar buzz in one of the Academy’s most fickle categories. For Pollard, 70, King was a towering figure when he grew up in East Harlem. “In my home, we had three pictures on our wall,” he said in a Zoom interview, with “Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.”

Four pivotal events changed his youthful conception of America as a country in which distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys was as simple as the white or black hats they wore in old movies or TV shows. The first was Nov. 22, 1963, when his middle school teacher informed the class that school was going to close because John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Pollard was 13. The second was April 2, 1968, when Pollard turned 18. The third was two days later, when he watched America’s most trusted anchorman, Walter Cronkite, report that Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. A few months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

“Those were my teen years,” Pollard ruefully said.

And the FBI? “They were heroes,” Pollard said he believed at the time, based in part on positive portrayals in such films as “Big Jim McLain” starring John Wayne and “The FBI Story” starring James Stewart (clips of both are featured in “MLK/FBI”) and the Quinn-Martin TV series, “The FBI.” “Every Sunday night, I would be in front of my television,” Pollard said with a laugh, intoning the cast: Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., William Reynolds and Philip Abbott.

Which is why Pollard, editor of Spike Lee’s “Clockers” and “Bamboozled,” and whose directing credits include episodes of the Peabody Award-winning series, “Eyes on the Prize” and documentaries about Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis, Jr. and August Wilson for “American Masters,” would not have made “MLK/FBI” 20 years ago, he said. “I was still holding on to the notion that in America the good people were out there to thwart the bad people. The good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats.”

Pointedly, he begins “MLK/FBI” with a clip of Ronald Reagan introducing a television program with the advisory that “In the traditional motion picture story, the villains are defeated, the ending is a happy one. I can make no such promise for the picture you’re about to watch. The story isn’t over.”

How familiar were you with the extent of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King, and what new information did you learn that compelled you to make "MLK/FBI"?

I didn’t know the depth of the surveillance. My producer, Benjamin Hedin, read The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr. by David Garrow. We had already worked together on "Two Trains Runnin’," and he said, "I think I found our next film." I happen to know Garrow because he was a major consultant on "Eyes on the Prize." I read the book, and I said, "You’re right, this is our next film."

Did you consult with the King family or seek their blessing, as the documentary does address his personal life and extramarital affairs.

We knew from past history that the King family is very intent about holding on to Dr. King’s image, so I thought we should stay away from them, knowing full well that when the film came out, we would hear from them or the King estate. But there has not been a peep.

A key question posed in the film is the responsibility of historians. What responsibilities did you feel as a filmmaker in presenting this story?

I feel my responsibility is to look at the subject in a nuanced way, flaws and all. I used to want to look at Dr. King in one way: He was the great leader of the Civil Rights movement, he took us from a world of segregation to a world of integration, he had this phenomenal "I have a dream" speech, he was there when the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed. He was on the front lines all the time. But I also wanted to shape the narrative to show that he was also a human being. He was, like many of us, dealing with many things. He was constantly being monitored by the FBI, he knew (that at any time) he could be shot and assassinated, he was probably stupefied that he got the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who by 1967 said he felt very strongly that we should not be in Vietnam, knowing full well the pushback he would get from Lyndon Johnson, who had been a great supporter of his. So you see him in our film in moments when he looks weary and burdensome. It’s because he had a lot on his mind, plus dealing with his own personal life, which was very complicated.

The F.B.I. surveillance tapes, which were created to tarnish Dr. King’s reputation as “the moral leader of our nation,” will be released in 2027. Are you concerned about bad actors using the scandalous material to tarnish his image? Do you see this film as a way to get ahead of the story?

They will, and not really. What you said is very important. Those who have never felt the same kind of love and respect that I have for Dr. King, will feel the same way when those tapes come out. That will give them the fodder to say, "See, I told you he was a horrible man; he was worse than even J. Edgar Hoover said." We live in a country where there is freedom of speech, and even though I may disagree what some people say at times, they have a right to say it. The question I and my producer had to ask ourselves was were we doing the job of the FBI? if we had been more tawdry in our approach I would have said yes. But we were much more responsible and even-handed in how we dealt with things. I wasn’t trying to create any gotcha moments.

I was struck watching the man-on-the-street news footage of people waving pamphlets and insisting they had proof that Dr. King went to so-called Communist school. I immediately thought of all those who say the same thing about Joe Biden and Democrats.

Not much has changed. That’s what was so bad what we saw about January 6 at the Capitol. On one level, I’m horrified and disgusted, but on the other level, I’m thinking, Damn, our country is still the same. You look at the run-up to the election and listen to Donald Trump’s speeches about if you elect Democrats they will come destroy the suburbs and your community. This is insanity. Have we not learned any lessons in America?

"MLK/FBI" is striking in the absence of talking heads. Your interviewees’ commentary is heard on the soundtrack.

I had seen a documentary in 2011 called "The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975" (directed by Horan Hugo Olsson) with all these wonderful images of the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and others, and there was nobody on camera; you just heard their voices. It really kept me engaged with the footage. So when we were thinking of doing this film, I felt we should keep everybody off camera so the audience will be pulled into the material, watching the March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, watching who the FBI was. That was the strategy. A lot of documentaries are doing it now. If you see "Belushi," the commentary is all off-camera.

Was there something new you learned about Dr. King in the making of this film that impacted your appreciation of him?

Looking through the archives, there are images of Dr. King as a family man; footage with his young children, his wife, his parents; him at home at the dinner table. All that was really interesting stuff and footage I hadn’t seen in a long time. It humanizes him in a positive way.

What do you hope viewers get from "MLK/FBI"?

America has to come to a reckoning. I hope (viewers) will be able to see that, my god, what happened on January 6th was not an anomaly. It’s part of the American DNA. If America is ever to find its real footing, it has to deal with its history. This is a divided country and it seems like it’s becoming more so every day. I’ve seen this country go through many changes. Sometimes it’s frightening. I happen to be absolutely disgusted and angry over what I saw at the Capitol building.

Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly.

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