MLK / FBI (Image courtesy NBC)
In 1963, under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI began wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. with the aim of undermining his authority as a civil rights activist. Using a plethora of newly discovered and released files preserved by the Freedom of Information Act, as well as newly restored footage from that period MLK / FBI delves into the bureau's deeply questionable methods and motives for surveillance and paints a portrait of the king that does not shrink from unpleasant truths.
Directed by Sam Pollard, known as Spike Lee's editor on films such as Clocks and Bamboozled, MLK / FBI builds on a lifelong work dedicated to researching the history of American racial relations. See Pollard's multiple writing, directing, and credit production for the epic documentary series on the civil rights movement. Eyes on the price (1986) on his recent films about the lives of Zora Neale Hurston, Sammy Davis Jr. and August Wilson. in the MLK / FBIPollard examines how the office is raising the public perception of Dr. King has been rigged in hopes that revelations about his personal life and non-monogamous marriage would neutralize his influence. The tactic spoke directly to white Americans' fears about black empowerment. American culture and movies heightened this fear by portraying black male sexuality as a vicious, deviant force. Pollard convincingly demonstrates how the economy of images in American popular culture has historically maintained the standards of white supremacy, and how these texts helped to inform narratives about Dr. Construct King's Treason and FBI Justice.
Ultimately, the film articulates how Dr. King and the FBI represented two different versions of the American dream; one strives for more, the other desperates to protect what he already has. But instead of rehashing a David and Goliath story about one man's battle against a rogue unit, Pollard prefers the “grayscale” that make understanding the civil rights leader and the agency's not-so-out-dated mission difficult but ultimately strengthen it.
Between virtual screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival filmmakers caught up with Pollard via video chat. The film will be released by IFC Films in January 2021.
Filmmakers: What were the origins of the MLK / FBI, and how did you get into it?
Sam Pollard: Over two years ago Benjamin Hedin, the producer of the project I was working on Two trains are running (2016) called me. He had just read David Garrow's book and he came up to me and said, "I think we have our next movie – it's about King being monitored by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI." He sent me a copy of the book; I read it in about three or four days and called him back to tell him it was absolutely correct. So we set out to make a movie about how (Dr. King) is considered an icon today but was previously considered a pariah. We have put together a sizzling roll. We interviewed Dave Garrow for about four and a half hours in Pittsburgh, which is where he's from. Then we presented (the role) to various companies and all of them rejected us. Ben was able to bring on board another executive producer, David Friend. Then we got Cinetic, a company that helped raise the money, which came mainly from two companies, Field of Vision and Play Action.
We shot the rest of the interviews in fall 201. We started editing in late fall, early winter of this year, and had a rough cut by February or March. Then we started editing with Laura Tomaselli. We basically finished the film like a month ago. Two and a half years is not a long time to complete the film.
Filmmakers: Can you talk a little bit about the process of sorting through all of the archive footage?
Pollard: We brought in some wonderful archive producers. The most important one was a gentleman named Brian Becker who found material I had never seen before – Dr. King with his family, Dr. King gives speeches in places I've never seen. He also found footage I'd seen at work Eyes on the price in places like Chicago, Birmingham and Montgomery. So it was a combination of new and old material and lots of great photos from Dr. King and other members of the SCLS – Andy Young, Clarence Jones and people involved in charities like Rory Wilkins and James Farmer. When making documentaries, and historical documentaries in particular, you really want to make sure that you leave no stone unturned. Laura Tomaselli did a great job sifting through all of the material and finding material that helped shape the arc of the story.
Filmmakers: Then there is the footage from old Hollywood films.
Pollard: That was another important part of the process of finding these films through the FBI and the Communist Party. We found films like John Waynes Big Jim McLean (1952), where he tried as an FBI agent to expose communism; also, I was a communist with the FBI (1951), Go a crooked mile (1948), The FBI story (1959) starring Jimmy Stewart and a 1960s FBI series starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. So not only did we find archive footage, but also films and shows that really announced how wonderful the FBI was.
Filmmakers: That really struck me, the idea that cinema itself is involved in the repression of black Americans and in the romanticization of institutions like the FBI. They also add footage of Birth of a nation (1915), who portrayed black masculinity as deviant and dangerous. And the film shows how the FBI used these racist assumptions, some of which were shaped by the cinema, to help Dr. To delegitimize and humiliate King.
Pollard: That's something that has been constant in American history – the sexualization of black men and how to be afraid of them. That goes up to D.W. Griffith into the quiet time and this fear of the black and of the black standing up has lasted for many, many years. I grew up as a kid in the 50s and 60s. America was basically white bread. There were American TV shows like Father knows best and Leave it to Beaver where families were homogeneous and white. Suddenly, in 1955, a man arrives who becomes the leader of this boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, who says that African Americans need their rights too. Whites feared this sudden change in the status quo.
Think back to the documentary when Dr. King is on this TV show and this white journalist asks him if he thinks things are going too fast, that the movement is causing riot. We still hear this kind of language today: this fear that “things” are moving too fast, that law and order must be in place. It's incredibly sad.
Filmmakers: Nowadays we often look at Dr. King returns as that pure, perfect figure. It's as much a 180 as it was seen back then. Somebody like Sidney Poitier comes to mind, and this idea that you have to be seen as perfect in order to be accepted and legitimized as an African American figure.
Pollard: Sidney Poitier had to be perfect, he couldn't be a threat. I'll give you two examples: his 1957 film Something preciouswhere he is part of the Mau Mau movement but ultimately sacrifices himself to get up again. And then there's The defiant what he did with Tony Curtis the next year. (In this movie) He tries to escape on a moving train, but Tony Curtis barely manages. So (Poitier) sacrifices himself and becomes the symbol of the good negro. Dr. King was a strong speaker, although he had a calm demeanor. He was a threat because he didn't sacrifice himself. He fought for the rights of our people. It was scary for whites even in the north. Here was a man who turned what they perceived as the social order upside down.
Filmmakers: The film is in part about demystifying the legend of Dr. King. Is hero worship dangerous?
Pollard: Absolutely. When you make someone an icon, you forget that they are human and complex. They forget that King didn't do it alone. He had many foot soldiers. There were other people in the movement who made things happen. The young people did the sit-ins: Bernice Regan, James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dorothy Ide. So many other people were involved in the fight. It wasn't king alone. He was an icon because he was a rousing speaker, but it's always dangerous to take someone and elevate them to such a status.
Filmmakers: What was your personal experience regarding Dr. King and the FBI? How have your views changed since you were young?
Pollard: Being a documentary filmmaker – and that goes back to when I was working on it Eyes on the price– My position on America has become more complex. As a young man growing up in the 1960s, my household had a portrait of Dr. King and JFK on the wall. In 1961 or 1962 these people couldn't go wrong. They were great men, and it took me a while to understand that these are complicated people who have their own Achilles heels. I grew up in America and believed there was the good and the bad. I bought my way into the FBI mythology. J. Edgar Hoover was part of this organization called G-Men (Government Men). They wiped out gangsters; They tried to make sure that communism wouldn't take over the country. As a 14-year-old I supported the Vietnam War. I remember arguing with some of my classmates in middle school about the importance of saving the South Vietnamese from the scourge of communism. This is called American brainwashing.
Filmmakers: Your career will be determined in part by the documentaries you made about the civil rights movement and the lives of some of the great African American artists and figures in history. How does it work? MLK / FBI fit into your work and build on your concerns as a filmmaker?
Pollard: These works exist on a continuum. My philosophy for every film I've made – from Eyes on the price My films about Sammy Davis, Jr. and Zora Neale Hurston are about looking at these people who are celebrated and sometimes adored and how they are complicated and how they are not just one thing. They all have different levels and different parts of their personalities. With this film I wanted to deal with it. I didn't want (Dr. King and the FBI) to be presented in black and white. I want to show you the nuances of a person's life experience, their shades of gray.
Filmmakers: There are no speaking heads until the end of the film. The only indication of a new speaker is the sound of their voice and a label with their name. Can you talk about the decision to leave the archive footage stream uninterrupted for most of the movie?
Pollard: We discussed that right at the beginning of the process. Do you remember the documentary? The Black Power Mixtape? When I saw this in theaters, I remember there was nobody in front of the camera, just voices. I told Ben I wanted to do this and he totally agreed. Let's all do the votes. When we presented the idea to the donors, there were some reservations about not having speaking heads in front of the camera, but we stuck to our guns. We didn't want to interrupt the archive material that tells its own story. I had taken this approach in the past when I was the editor of Alex Gibney's film about Frank Sinatra. It's a little annoying to make a movie when no one is on camera, but I think most people will take it on. The idea of getting people in front of the camera in the end was Laura Tomasellis, so I'll tip my hat on her.
Filmmakers: At the end of the film, James Comey is interviewed and regrets the agency's previous practices. At the same time, the bigger conclusion the film draws about the FBI is that it wasn't some sort of rogue agency in the 1960s, but rather a legitimate arm of the entire government. Have things changed?
Pollard: Who is the Attorney General? Bill Barr. In reality, the government can still do the same. You probably are. Bill Barr points to protesters and tries to associate them with Antifa, the new word for communism in America. They say Antifa is trying to destroy the very fabric of American society and we have to be careful and dismantle it. (Barr) basically does the same thing that Hoover does as director of the FBI.