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How ‘MLK/FBI’ Chronicled an American Disgrace

Director Sam Pollard takes us inside his documentary about the FBI’s surveillance campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. — and the danger of putting heroes on pedestals

Sam Pollard turned 18 in early April 1968. He still remembers what happened next. “I grew up in a household where King was revered,” says the filmmaker. “We had three pictures on our wall: Martin Luther King, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jesus Christ. Two days later, April 4th, Walter Cronkite comes on the news and says, ‘Dr. King has just been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.’ I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

Pollard wasn’t alone in feeling that way: King’s violent death at the age of 39 was a national tragedy that dealt a serious blow to the cause of racial justice in this country, leaving millions in grief and anger. It also turned the charismatic orator into a saint in the public’s mind, simplifying him in the process. “My perspective back then was a simple one,” Pollard says. “He was the man with the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But here I am now, almost 50 years later, and I’m looking at King and saying, ‘Sure, he was a great man, but there were other aspects of his life.’”

Pollard has spent much of his career chronicling Black life in America. Whether as an editor for Spike Lee — their collaboration started with 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, the two men earning an Oscar nomination for producing the documentary 4 Little Girls — or as a documentarian on works like Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, he has thought a great deal about this country’s racial tensions. (He also was part of Eyes on the Prize, the landmark 1980s overview of the civil rights movement.) 

Now 70, Pollard returns with MLK/FBI, an examination of King through a very specific lens. As King’s influence grew in the early 1960s, he became a target of J. Edgar Hoover, who feared that the Baptist minister was trying to undermine American values. As the all-powerful head of the FBI, Hoover decided to surveil King, bugging his phones and hotel rooms in the hopes of obtaining incriminating information. The goal was to expose King as a philanderer who was far from the “moral leader” his followers claimed. Of course, King was promiscuous, engaging in multiple affairs outside of his marriage to Coretta Scott King, and Pollard’s film refuses to overlook those indiscretions. Instead, MLK/FBI offers a nuanced, sometimes critical take on King as he tries to sway a nation about the importance of racial equality while at the same time facing intense pressure from all sides. 

But among the documentary’s major selling points — which features interviews with those who have written about or worked alongside King — is its access to recently declassified FBI intelligence, which provides a sense of Hoover’s obsession with King. It seemed almost personal for Hoover: He wanted to destroy this man.

Although the title MLK/FBI gives the (accurate) impression that Pollard’s film is a showdown between one man and an entire law enforcement agency, the documentary is also a reminder that King was at war with most of his fellow countrymen. With another Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the horizon, we are sure to hear plenty of empty praise from some politicians who, when King was alive, would have been bitterly opposed to his progressive platform. Similarly, MLK/FBI can be stunning in its utilization of archival interviews with everyday white Americans in the 1960s who disparage King, treating him as if he’s practically subhuman. (Indeed, after a widely publicized private meeting between King and Hoover meant for them to air their differences, a national poll was taken, and a majority of Americans sided with Hoover in the two men’s feud.) If Pollard strives to show King as an imperfect but inspirational figure, he also illustrates how much resistance his cause faced — and still does. “No human being is always ready to embrace change,” Pollard tells me.

During our conversation, the filmmaker discussed the danger of putting heroes on pedestals, why he’s not comfortable labeling Hoover a white supremacist and whether he thinks the FBI was involved in King’s killing. And Pollard has some thoughts about what it means to have devoted his career to the same fight King was waging a half-century ago.

What’s ironic about MLK/FBI is that it’s about how obsessive the FBI was in trying to prove that King was a flawed figure, and then your movie basically makes the argument, “Yeah, he was flawed, so what?” You’re essentially defanging the FBI’s entire strategy. 

That was exactly the agenda I took on when I made the film. I wanted to show King like anybody else. He was flawed — even though he’s a great man, it doesn’t mean that he was a perfect man. As a documentarian, when I’m trying to do a film, I’m trying to show the complexity of the person. We know that he had to deal with the constant surveillance of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, but we also wanted to show that there were lots of things on this man’s plate. He had a very full plate. He’s the leader of the civil rights movement, he’s just been given a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 — that [all] had to be a heavy burden on him. By 1967, he decides he wants to come out against Vietnam, knowing full well it’s going to destroy his relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Johnson administration that supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He had a very complicated life. That’s what I wanted to convey. 

If I had done this film back in the 1980s when I first started producing, it probably would have been a much simpler perspective on Dr. King. But as I’ve gotten older and I see life from so many different angles, I felt it was a good time to dig into who he really was.

If we think of leaders as being perfect, we’re really doing them a disservice. 

You shouldn’t put anybody on a pedestal. I mean, I loved my father, I loved my mother, but they weren’t perfect. [In my films,] I’m going to look at the person in a very complicated way, but I want to show what I love about them or what I think can be, sometimes, repulsive about that person. If you do it that way, you’re doing your job. 

MLK/FBI also focuses a lot on Hoover. Considering how he tried to destroy King, he almost seems like the definition of a white supremacist.

I would be very careful — I’m not sure I’d say he’s a white supremacist. This is what I would say: He’s a symbol of how many white men and white women thought about African-Americans at that time. We were people basically on the fringes of society — we were good to shine your shoes, wash your dishes, take care of your children, but we weren’t supposed to be equal. That’s the world he came out of, and that was the world many white people [came out of], and they’re not all white supremacists. It was, “White is right.” So, to me, Hoover is a man who is symbolic of the times and of the world that he lived in — seeing Dr. King become the voice of African-American people had to be frightening [for him]. 

You watch some of those [archival] man-on-the-street interviews in the film — one white man says, “Hoover says King is bad, but I think [King] is 10 times worse.” They wanted Black people to “stay in their place” — they should be maids or butlers or shoeshine people. “They’re certainly not to sit in the same restaurant with me, go to the same theater with me, be able to sit with us in the same place on the bus.”

What’s odd is that Hoover’s strategy of publicly embarrassing King with details about his infidelities wasn’t necessarily something that would have worked back then. The press didn’t run with the FBI’s information, to Hoover’s annoyance. 

This is the America of the 1960s — they wouldn’t do that. They didn’t dig into people’s personal lives. The press knew about John Kennedy’s personal infidelities, but they didn’t dig into it. That wasn’t part of the agenda — the agenda was just to focus on a person’s political and professional life. That’s why the press didn’t take the bait from Hoover and William Sullivan — that was a different world then. 

I know that the media’s changed: Everything is up for grabs now, anybody’s personal life is up for grabs. But what they print or what they put on television, even a person’s [sex] life, as we’ve seen with Donald Trump, doesn’t have any real impact. The scandals in Donald Trump’s life, did they really undercut him becoming president of the United States? No. 

Yeah, but in a weird way, Hoover was ahead of his time in anticipating how the media would cover the personal life of a public figure. 

The next question you should be asking me is, “Are you doing the job that Hoover and the FBI was trying to do 50 years ago by sullying Dr. King’s reputation?” My answer to that is I don’t think so. I think that, as a filmmaker, I try to do a more evenhanded [analysis], which is a big difference [from] what the FBI was [doing].

And you do include in the film the allegations that King watched as a friend raped a woman. You provide context, suggesting that the FBI might have invented the story to discredit King, but I was curious how much you hesitated mentioning it at all.

We were nervous. We said, “Whoa, this is going to raise some hackles.” But then the other part of us said, “If we don’t put it in, one of the first questions we will get from somebody in the press will be, ‘You did a documentary about King, but you never dealt with that rape allegation. How come you didn’t do that?’” We were nervous, we were thinking about the impact of it. Then, as we decided to do it, the question became, “How do we do it in a way that doesn’t sound like a ‘gotcha’ moment?” We thought about it seriously.

It ended up in the film, so I assume you’re happy with the decision you made.

You know, you can’t whitewash stuff. We have to deal with it.

MLK/FBI talks about Hoover’s personal life, too, which has long been speculated about. Both of these men seem to speak to how America was wary of discussing sexuality back then. 

Here’s my take: All the stuff about Hoover’s personal life has been conjecture, right? In the movie, I didn’t come out with any real facts — there’s no smoking gun. No one knows — it’s all been conjecture. We felt you can’t make some blanket statement about Hoover and his sexuality because we don’t really know. 

But how Hoover saw the world informed why he wanted to undermine Dr. King. And not just Dr. King — [he wanted to] undermine any Black person who was what he called “left of center,” be it the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, any group that he felt would undermine the notion of America. He wanted to monitor them and upend them. 

And, quite honestly, that’s still active in America — we all have to believe that the FBI has been monitoring any organization that has come out in challenging the notion of America. Black Lives Matter, I believe they’re monitoring them on a daily basis and staying informed of that organization. This is what the FBI does when they want to do it.

You do a good job of showing Hoover’s campaign to drum up public goodwill toward the FBI by letting the organization be portrayed as heroes in movies. Hollywood helped sell the idea that we should trust the FBI.

It’s interesting, working on this film has dredged up a lot of this stuff I grew up with and was bombarded with. Here I am, a young African-American teenager, a young man in the 1960s, and I’m watching on television every Sunday night a show that was produced by Quinn Martin called The F.B.I. Here are these guys taking down the bad guys — smugglers, terrorists, communists — and I ate it up. Why? Because I had really swallowed the mythology of the FBI from watching those old movies from the 1930s, like G Men, and movies like Walk a Crooked Mile, and Big Jim McLain with big John Wayne, and The FBI Story with James Stewart. They created this mythology — the nation’s belief — that they were the good guys who fought crime.

This notion of brainwashing continues to this day: If you watch the CSI shows, you watch Blue Bloods, you watch The Rookie, they all do the same thing. They’re creating a mythology about these organizations. I mean, I still watch these things, but you have to understand where they’re coming from. You’ve got to be able to see beyond the fact that they’ve created this mythology and say, “Well, this may be entertaining, but I got to understand what they’re all about on a deeper level.” 

Countries are built on mythology: “We’re great, and this is why we’re great.” You always have to question that and challenge it.

We’re living at a time of an abundance of true-crime series. I wouldn’t say MLK/FBI is a true-crime documentary, per se —

Yes, it is, man.

Oh, that’s funny — I can see that. But you definitely subverted the tropes.

Yeah, we just flipped it. [Laughs] The bad guys are the FBI, and the good guy is King. 

If you know my body of work, as both an editor and as a producer, I’ve always done a lot of fiction, and one of the things I’ve taken away from working on these fiction films is the idea that you want to create a narrative that has a level of complexity and drama. You want to create a protagonist and an antagonist, if possible, to build the drama, and I try to bring that into the documentaries. [In MLK/FBI] the protagonist is King and the antagonist is Hoover, and they’re going to go on a collision path. That’s the makings of good drama.

You finished the film in August. Did this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement inform the final edit in any way?

Not really — I think that we knew that we could sell this because of what’s going on in the present. We didn’t know to what detail until we saw the events of the summer, but [the film] will resonate because — look at America today, man. Look at what this country has gone through in the last four years. Look what [happened after] Obama became president. When you turn on the lights, the roaches come out — when Obama became president, the roaches came out in America, and they’ve really gone crazy in the last four years with Donald Trump being in office. So there wasn’t anything in this film that was informed by what was happening presently. The America you see in the 1960s that Dr. King was fighting to change? That’s America still in some form or fashion today.

MLK/FBI is a good reminder that, in his time, King was widely reviled. So many people who praise him now wouldn’t have done so when he was alive. 

What’s amazing to me is that Hoover saw him as a radical as much as he saw Malcolm X as a radical. He didn’t see them differently, he saw them as the same — two men from different sides of the Black spectrum, from his perspective, were trying to upend his philosophy about what America should be. 

And when someone like King challenges that worldview, people want to find flaws in the man so they don’t have to listen to him. 

No human being is always ready to embrace change. It’s something they have to change within themself. It takes a very strong person — a person with some forethought to realize, “Okay, I may resist this, but there may be some value in me wanting to change.” And that’s hard for people to do. 

I mean, you saw that last week. These [rioters] basically said, “We don’t want to change. This election was fraudulent, we want to stop it.” Some people were saying, “Hang Mike Pence” — I mean, my god, you have a guy who basically [bowed down] every time Trump came into the room, never said one bad word about Trump. He becomes the enemy only because he won’t do things that he couldn’t do anyway.

Watching the film, I noticed that King also had a patriarchal, sexist side. It’s not just the infidelities — it’s the fact that he treated Coretta Scott King so shabbily by constantly cheating on her.

Well, that was the world that they lived in. That was the world that, in some places, still survives today [in terms of] how men see women and women’s role in society — and a man’s role in society and what a man thinks he can and cannot do. The sexism that was pervasive in the 1960s — listen, man, it still exists in America in many places. We have an East Coast and we have a West Coast, and a lot of middle, and a lot of those values that you see in the 1960s still exist in those places.

In the film, there’s a mention that, at the time, Hoover was actually more popular than King in a national poll. I understand King was a divisive figure, but still: He was a charismatic man and a powerful speaker. Hoover was none of those things. 

It was the power of the FBI and the myth of the FBI. [In the film] there’s footage of these young boys asking Hoover about wanting to become an FBI agent. There’s footage of Hoover with a machine gun acting like he’s going to be the one to take out John Dillinger. [Laughs] There’s footage of the white [FBI recruits] and their exercise clothes doing jumping jacks and pushups and stuff. I mean, this is to perpetuate the myth of the FBI being heroic figures and “America’s police.” And, sure, [Hoover] wasn’t like John Wayne, but the organization he led, there was a lot of John Wayne to that organization.

That brand of masculinity is always popular: the tough guy. Some people fall for it as being an indication of strength. 

Yeah, Donald Trump wants you to think he’s a tough guy. He said [last week in his speech before the riot], “I’m going to go down to the Capitol,” and where’s he go? He goes back to the White House. He’s not a tough guy.

The documentary doesn’t have an opinion on this, but do you think the FBI was aware of King’s assassination in advance? Do you think they were involved in any way? 

I believe there’s a cache, someplace, of letters, tapes and movies that someone will unearth and find out that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King — and that James Earl Ray was the scapegoat. That’s what I believe.

You think the American government was involved?

Who knows, man, who knows? The American government has created coups to dethrone presidents in other countries and bring in dictatorships. They’ve assassinated people. Anything’s possible.

You ask your interview subjects at the end of the documentary what they anticipate from the release of FBI documents on King in 2027. What do you hope will come out?

I’m not that interested in the stuff that might be salacious. What I’m interested in hearing is the stuff that they talked about, you know, between King and Ralph Abernathy and Dorothy Cotton and Wyatt Tee Walker and Clarence Jones. [I’m interested in hearing about] strategy: “How do we engage the community to come out and picket? How are we going to deal with the young whippersnappers who want to be more confrontational?” That’s what I’m looking to hear. I would like to think that stuff still also exists.

You have spent many years, in different ways, documenting the struggle for racial equality in this country. Is there any sense of sadness that you’re still at it? That it’s not ancient history by this point? 

Sure, there’s a part of me that wishes that America had turned the corner and I could say to my grandchildren, “This is how America was in the 1960s…” But sadly, man, I can’t say that. You see the deaths of these people in the streets — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the young man shot in the back who’s crippled for life. The possibility that I saw in the 1960s with the Voting Rights Act, there’s been some major changes for people of color in America — but there’s also still a separation between the races that exists. 

I mean, if you look at that crowd last week [in Washington, D.C.], there were maybe 2,000 people. How many people of color were in that group? For me, as a person of color, I worry about that. But this is the America that we live in. The America that you saw last week wasn’t an anomaly. It’s part of the American DNA.