‘MLK/FBI’ Director Sam Pollard on Documentary Filmmaking After Black Lives Matter: ‘You’ve Got to Keep Pushing’

‘MLK/FBI’ Director on Documentary Filmmaking After Black Lives Matter
Courtesy of IDFA

Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” follows the dirty war that America’s FBI declared on civil rights figurehead Martin Luther King, a vendetta that began in the 50s and ended with his assassination in 1968, inspired by recent revelations (as well as credible long-held suspicions), and backed up by declassified secret government documents. Documentary festival IDFA, which runs until Dec. 6, selected the title in their Masters section.

Welcoming Pollard, an Oscar nominee and three-time Emmy winner, to the festival, IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia wondered why the African-American director had taken so long to get round to this subject, given his well-known passion for documenting the injustices of the civil rights era (although he has a directing and producing career in his own right, spanning 30 years, Pollard’s Oscar nomination was for editing Spike Lee’s blistering 1997 film “4 Little Girls”). The director welcomed the question, noting that sometimes a story can “be right in front of you, but you’re not quite sure when it should be put into production, when it should be told.”

“I had spent a lot of time,” he explained, “doing films about the civil rights movement, working from [his debut] ‘Eyes on the Prize’ [1990], to ‘The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow’ [2002], to ‘Slavery by Another Name’ [2012]. But I had never thought about looking into the relationship that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had in terms of trying to undercut and destroy Dr. King’s reputation. And it wasn’t until 2017 when my producer Ben Hedin read this book by David Garrow about the FBI and Martin Luther King that, all of a sudden, it became clear to him—and to myself—that this should be a film.”

The pair reached out to Garrow, who was an advisor on “Eyes on the Prize,” and met him in Pittsburgh in 2017 with a camera crew. “We spent four hours with him,” Pollard recalled, “having him frame the whole story about Dr. King, the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, William Sullivan, and the strategy that they had to undercut Dr. King. You’re right—it should have been a film that might have been done 15 years ago. But Dr. King is seen as an icon, not only in America but in the world, and we wanted to look at Dr. King in a much more complex, human way, and this just seemed to be the right time [to do that].”

Nyrabia noted that the bogeymen of Dr. King’s time—communists, socialists—have resurfaced in the modern discourse of right-wing America, despite the collapse of the Cold War in the meantime. “I saw the connection immediately,” said Pollard. “To think, here we are in 2020, and America still is raising this idea of the flag of communism, socialism—that we should be frightened of it, that it’s going to destroy American democracy and American capitalism. What’s funny about that is that, in the 1930s, when F.D.R. became president of the United States, he introduced America to social security, which is a form of socialism. But if you told an American that today, they would say, ‘Are you [crazy]?’ So in some ways it’s sad that America still pulls out these same tropes that they used against Dr. King and others in the 50s and 60s—the red scourge.”

Pollard went further. “In some ways,” he said, “things haven’t changed, in terms of the American political landscape. When we were shaping and editing the film, we didn’t realize to the extent that it would be so resonant and relevant today. I mean, we knew it would be relevant, but with all the things that have happened in the last nine months— with the pandemic, with the narratives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, with Trump pulling out the trope that white America should be afraid [because] the left is going to destroy the suburbs—it just shows you that America is still, in some ways, socially and politically, a very backwards country.”

Nyrabia asked Pollard if his film could change that situation, and it seemed that the director was ahead of him on that score. “I said to someone a few weeks ago,” recalled Pollard, “that we should send a copy of this film to the FBI. We should send a copy to the State Department. We should send a copy of this film to the Secret Service. I mean, the only way you could make change is to have people who wouldn’t normally see this film see this film. The audiences that we’ve shown this film to, they’re going to be right in sync with this film. We need to show it to people who wouldn’t be so in sync.”

“You know, what’s fascinating?” he continued. “In the film, there are [vox pops] where they asked people what they thought of Dr. King. I would say to you, if you did the same thing today, and you asked them about someone like Joe Biden, or Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, you’d hear the same kind of dialogue: ‘They’re socialists, they’re communists, they’re trying to destroy our system of democracy.’ It’s really scary …”

Moving to film history, Nyrabia asked Pollard how he felt about the “decolonization” of film culture and filmmaking, particularly in terms of the documentary field. “That’s a fantastic question,” said Pollard. “I came up at a time where there weren’t many people of color in the editing rooms, or producing documentaries, but I was also fortunate, in 1980, to be introduced to a wonderful documentary filmmaker [named] St. Clair Bourne, and spending time with him on that first film I edited for him [that year], about these Chicago blues musicians. He made me understand that my responsibility as a filmmaker wasn’t just to make films for Sam Pollard, it was to make films that were going to look at our community, and the people in our community, and tell our stories. And there weren’t many people doing that. Now, as years have gone by, you see that there’s more, I mean, we have Stanley Nelson, Louis Massiah, Dawn Porter, and on the feature side, we’ve got Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. So we’ve seen it more.”

Pollard was also excited about the openings made in the streaming era. “I think what’s happening now—which is fantastic, really—is that the corporations, the HBOs, the Amazons and the Netflixes, are starting to understand that when they fund documentaries, and when they fund films, that if they want to tell these stories, they’ve got to make sure that they are responsible in involving more people of color in the production process. They can always go to the same old people who’ve established really good reputations, who are good filmmakers, but that’s narrowed the world, it’s narrowed the perspective. So you’ve got to open it [up]. And I think there’s a younger generation of original young filmmakers of color that are stepping up and out, and I’m happy that it’s happening. I’m really glad that’s happening.”

Despite his own claims of being at the end of his career, Pollard went on to speak of his forthcoming projects, which include a film about Max Roach, and another about a 19th-century African-American scholar and venturer.

Asked about his work ethic, given his resilience during such a long career, Pollard described it as “an optimistic American sort of ideology.” “You’ve got to keep pushing,” he said. “It’s about understanding that we’re always in continual struggle. You saw with Dr. King, you saw with the civil rights movement, that there’s always a struggle, that every time you take two steps forward, you end up taking three steps back. And as a freelance documentary filmmaker, I understand that. It’s a struggle, it’s a struggle to get these films made, and it’s a struggle to get these stories out there. And when the story connects, you feel some sense of [satisfaction]: ‘Ah, I finally made a dent. Even if it’s a little dent, I made a dent.’”