For ‘MLK/FBI,’ Director Sam Pollard Sought To Capture the FBI’s Relentless Pursuit of Martin Luther King Jr.

Acclaimed documentarian Sam Pollard has spent years capturing the Black American experience on film. He has edited dramas by Spike Lee and produced or directed projects covering the span of the last century, chronicling social struggles and the lives of icons. But Pollard’s latest documentary, “MLK/FBI,” is about a different, subterranean history. Darkly poetic, inspiring and unnerving all at once, it tells the story of how the FBI aimed their lawless COINTELPRO campaign against the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It begins in August 1963, when King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and the bureau, under the long direction of Cold War obsessive and racist J. Edgar Hoover, became suspicious of King’s potential as a militant “Black messiah.” With the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Hoover greenlit the FBI program to trail King, bugging his hotel rooms and spying on his every move. At first the operation became about proving King was a Communist puppet, but when proof of marital infidelities emerged, Hoover sought to gather evidence to smear King’s moral image.

The great mystery at the heart of “MLK/FBI” is the recordings and photographs agents gathered, which are sealed away in the National Archives until 2027. All we have for now are newly declassified documents of shocking memos and notes by the agents. In the documentary Pollard sits down with King scholars like David J. Garrow, who speak off screen over brilliantly-edited images to give the FBI’s operations against King context. Pollard spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “MLK/FBI” and its striking relevancy.

“MLK/FBI” differs from many of the documentaries about Dr. King in how it explores this kind of subterranean history involving the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the civil rights icon. What made you feel now was the time to tell this story?

My producer, Ben Hedin, read David J. Garrow’s book about the FBI and Dr. King, J. Edgar Hoover and their surveillance of King, and he then gave me the book and we both had the idea that this should be our second film together. We had already done a film together named ‘Two Trains Runnin.’ I happened to know Garrow. He was a major consultant on our film ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ We reached out to David and optioned his book and flew out to Pittsburgh where he lives and spent four hours talking with him. We talked about the genesis of his book, the research that he did and what he found out. That interview became the framework of our story. 

As a documentarian you also have to do a lot of your own research in addition to speaking with experts. You yourself dived into some of the National Archives material that’s available. Did your perception of any of these major historical figures change as a result?

I’m not sure my research, which meant going into archives and getting the footage we use, going into the Archives and reading the transcripts, yielded any major surprises for me. I think the biggest surprise was the idea that the FBI would go so far as when they had one of their officials, William Sullivan, create this letter basically suggesting that Dr. King should kill himself. They sent an audio tape, which I had already known about, supposedly featuring Dr. King in some situation with another woman to his wife, Coretta Scott King. That’s where I thought the FBI went too far. Their job initially was to surveillance King because they thought he might be connected to the Communist Party, but when they found out he had relationships with women other than his wife, they went off in that direction hoping they could gather enough audio to pass on to the press. They hoped the press would grab onto it and publish it to ruin Dr. King’s reputation. But this was the ‘60s. The press didn’t do that kind of thing. They didn’t go into people’s personal lives like we do today. So it didn’t take hold.

There is this side of the documentary that also makes Dr. King more human than any other film or documentary we’ve seen before. Even Oliver Stone in the ‘90s cancelled an MLK project because he felt all the questions of Dr. King’s personal relationships were too dicey.

Oliver Stone said that? Really? That’s surprising (laughs). 

Yes, it was going to be titled “Memphis.” But you do capture that complexity of the man in your documentary.

Well, as a documentarian I’m trying not to just present the character or the subject in one light. I’m trying to show them in many ways. I wanted to show that Dr. King, like a lot of us, had a complicated life, he was a complicated human being with a lot of stuff on his plate. There were things that he succeeded at. There were things that he and the movement failed at. He had a very complicated personal life. I just felt it was important to show all those aspects. I don’t think quite honestly, that anything we’ve done in this film is going to undermine or undercut how important his contribution was to American history and to the world. As a filmmaker when I think back to growing up in the ‘60s I had only one particular perspective on King. He was a gentleman who had made the “I Have a Dream” speech, he was battling the walls of segregation. That’s all I knew about him. But as I’ve gotten older and seen life in much more complicated ways, I want to dig into him and see all angles. It’s important.

The documentary is also dropping at a time when we’re having a public reckoning as well with our long history of race relations in America. The BLM movement and the responses to it have striking parallels. Even the way J. Edgar Hoover talks about King in memos sounds like the MAGA critics of anti-racist movements today.

This is a wakeup call for those who don’t know this history. It’s important to understand our history and realize that even what happened recently with the storming of the Capitol was not an anomaly. It was something that certain people in America have done for hundreds of years. If you go back to Jim Crow and segregation, when we had our own self-contained Black communities that were thriving, even though they were separated, when white people thought they were a threat, what did they do? There’s the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Rosewood in Florida, when Black people came back proud from World War I we had the 1919 Red Summer. This is part of America’s DNA. Watching this film you should understand that America has always been resistant to change. If one person yells ‘fire’ they all go and attack. It’s amazing, man. What Trump did is something that white America has done for a couple of hundred years. It’s not new.

Continuing on that thread, it was revelatory to see in the documentary how when Dr. King came out against the Vietnam War, suddenly even liberal supporters turned against him. At that point he had gone against not just racism, but this particular mindset of American exceptionalism.

All of a sudden, here is the leader of the civil rights struggle in America, all of a sudden he says he’s going to come out against Vietnam. There were those within the movement who felt he had lost his way and gone against ‘the agenda.’ Some people don’t want to remember that King was about the human agenda, he was about all humankind coming together and questioning why an imperialist country like America was fighting in Vietnam. It goes back to this notion that we see ourselves as the beacon of democracy, even though, as you know, that’s a very complicated thing in America, the notion of democracy. Think about it this way, in World War II we’re fighting Nazism and Japanese imperialism, but Black men and women couldn’t be integrated into the armed forces. When they come back from fighting for their country, they’re treated like pariahs. The contradictions in America are so profoundly in our face. As a person of color I understand it. It’s clear that America is very confused.

There is a theme of secret history in “MLK/FBI,” because the FBI’s surveillance tapes and photographs won’t be released until 2027. But do Garrow and the experts have any hint of what we might learn about Dr. King and that whole period?

Well, you know, some people are probably salivating thinking they’re going to get all this scandalous stuff of King and some women. But the other thing that we should be mindful of is you have to imagine some of those conversations in rooms, with people like Ralph Abernathy and Dorothy Cotton, were really about strategy, about what to do when they went to cities like Albany, Georgia or Montgomery, Alabama. Those things may be on the tapes too. So there’s probably a wealth of material on the movement’s strategizing.

Has there been a reaction by the King estate, did they collaborate in any way?

We didn’t reach out to the King family because as you probably well know, they have been very attentive to Dr. King’s image and his voice. We felt that as a production every time you involve the family in your film, you have to worry about their reactions. They might feel we’re going too far. We don’t really need that because King was a public figure. So the family has reached out but I don’t think I should comment any more on that.

There might undoubtedly be controversy again over the alleged tape claiming King was in a room witnessing an assault. I remember Garrow had written a piece about it that received a lot of pushback a few years ago.

Garrow wrote that article and it finally had to get published in some British publication. He caught some flack! People were saying, ‘how dare you try to sully Dr. King’s name?’ After we did our initial interview with Garrow we went back a year later, and we asked him a bunch of questions about what he felt his agenda was as a historian to write about that tape. Why did you feel you had to go so far? But quite honestly, you should be asking me the same question. Someone might wonder if we as documentarians are doing the exact same thing the FBI was trying to do. My response is that I feel that as a filmmaker we’ve tried to be a little more even-handed, not be salacious in our presentation, and challenge people to ask questions. What was really going on in that room? Did the FBI really hear what they thought they heard? Or did they improvise and alter what was there?

It raises that question of who owns history.

Exactly. Everything is tailored for how someone wants an audience to perceive it. History was written that way. Everything is written that way. That’s why it’s invaluable right now that filmmakers like me are able to do films about Dr. King that give an additional perspective about him and the FBI. When I was growing up, the American history that I learned was basically told to me by white men. Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator and George Washington and the cherry tree. That’s how I thought about these American heroes. But other historians and historians of color have done their homework and found other ways to look at American heroes.

MLK/FBI” releases Jan. 15 on VOD and select cities.