“The world hasn’t changed much,” says director Sam Pollard of his new doc about the government surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, the FBI began wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. with the aim of “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader,” as an FBI memo put it at the time. Relying on recently declassified files, Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK/FBI, takes account of that surveillance, the motives behind it and its impact on King.
“We felt it was important to really look at how King was looked at from the perspective of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, that they considered him a very dangerous man,” says Pollard, who is best known for editing Spike Lee’s films. “They were going at him by any means necessary to destroy him. At the same time, we wanted to convey King’s trajectory as we see the FBI is really digging into him, wiretapping, bugging his hotel rooms, and finding out that he was not a monogamous man.”
The film, which will be seeking a distributor at TIFF, unspools archival imagery of the civil rights movement and the history of the FBI over audio of interviews with figures like historian David Garrow, civil rights leader and King associate Andrew Young, and former FBI director James Comey, who calls the era “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”
MLK/FBI grapples with how to make sense of the private details of King’s life that the FBI purported to have unearthed, including an explosive allegation that he stood by while a woman was raped. “We didn’t want to titillate people or be sensationalistic,” says Pollard. “It was important for us to tell the story in a very professional, serious way, to understand the kind of pressures Dr. King was under … knowing full well that the FBI were trying to destroy his reputation.”
Producer Ben Hedin, with whom Pollard had worked on his 2016 music documentary Two Trains Runnin’, brought the idea to Pollard after reading Garrow’s 1986 King biography and his appraisal of tens of thousands of digital FBI files that were dropped on the National Archive in 2017 and 2018. Pollard initially recorded a long interview with Garrow and pitched the concept to Netflix, among other distributors. When no one bit, Hedin enlisted Cinetic to help raise money, which pulled in Laura Poitras’ company, Field of Vision, and Marie Therese Guirgis’ Play/Action to finance.
Pollard, who edited Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Clockers, has had a long career steeped in civil rights–era stories, starting with directing episodes of the seminal 1987-90 PBS series Eyes on the Prize. For the filmmaker, it’s impossible not to see the parallels between the era depicted in MLK/FBI and the one unfolding in the U.S. today. “There’s probably somebody who is an informant in the Black Lives Matter movement in one of these cities that’s reporting back to the FBI,” Pollard says. “We have a federal government that is saying right now that these protests in the streets, even the ones that are quiet protests, it’s all about Antifa. When you watch this film, some of that same language you’re hearing from people like George Wallace. The world hasn’t changed that much.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.