Sam Pollard’s new documentary “MLK/FBI” is an examination of how Martin Luther King Jr. was investigated and harassed by the FBI, based on recently discovered and declassified secret government files. The film is currently part of the Masters section at the documentary festival IDFA, which runs virtually until December 6th.
Pollard, a three-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, has a deep-seated passion for documenting the injustices of the civil rights era, from his 1990 documentary series debut Eyes on the Prize, to The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (2002) and Slavery by Another Name (2012).
In a detailed conversation with IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia (provided by Variety) Pollard discussed what prompted him to create a film on the relationship between Martin Luther King and the FBI. “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.”
But why now? Is there still an audience for this story? Pollard agrees that it is a work that perhaps should have been done 15 years ago. On the contrary, he says, “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].”
Furthermore, 2020 appears to be filled with relevance as we watch history repeat itself. “In some ways,” said Pollard, “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.”
With a career spanning over 30 years, Pollard has sound advice when it comes to how he managed to maintain a strong work ethic. “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.’”
Watch the trailer for “MLK/FBI” below: