'MLK/FBI' Explores the Complexities of the Civil Rights Icon
By Tracie Lewis
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
MLK/FBI, currently streaming via IFC Films, is director Sam Pollard’s most impressive work yet. Pollard boldly and creatively examines Martin Luther King Jr. in an unfamiliar light. The story investigates FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with destroying Dr. King’s reputation, through surveillance and a general abuse of power.
Hoover, who headed the FBI for nearly 50 years, feared King’s growing influence in the civil rights movement and labeled him “the most dangerous Negro in America”—the manifestation of what Hoover deemed the biggest threat to national security: “The rise of the Black Messiah.” Hoover was in a position of power—and as the leader of a national movement, so was King.
In MLK/FBI, Pollard explores the aspects of King’s narrative that have been speculated about, protected or maybe unknown to many over the years, revealing a complexity that challenges the well-documented iconography. There’s the burden of being a leader, his infidelities, and the tremendous pressures he withstood from government agencies seeking to destroy him.
In constructing this story, Pollard supplements firsthand accounts—all off-camera—from King’s closest living confidantes, Clarence Jones and Andrew Young; historians; authors and former FBI personnel, with clips from old Hollywood films, rare archival footage and surveillance tape intelligence.
MLK/FBI offers various viewpoints on King, Hoover, the US government, and the impending release of surveillance tapes in 2027. The film invites reflection on the past, a reminder of a country set on a current cycle of repeat, and King’s legacy in American history.
Documentary spoke with Pollard about his latest film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: You’ve made a film that featured Martin Luther King Jr. before, in an episode of Eyes on the Prize II: Two Societies, in 1990. What did you discover about King with this project that you didn’t know before?
SAM POLLARD: I had known that King had a complicated life after the film I had done years ago. This was an opportunity to look at King from many different perspectives: as the leader of the civil rights movement; as a man who knew he was being surveilled and monitored by the FBI 24/7; as someone who has a very complicated personal life; as a man who by 1967 realized that he was against the war in Vietnam, but understood the reactions he would get as he came out against the war, not only from those within the civil rights movement, but from LBJ and his administration.
D: Talk about your stylistic choices for this film—using old films and television shows and rare archival footage, avoiding the standard talking heads, and including your own voice near the end to tell the story.
SP: Well, the idea of having nobody on camera was something that I had been inspired by with a film called The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which I had seen around 2011. That director, a Swedish director [Göran Olsson], had phenomenal archival footage from the ’70s and everybody was commenting on it off-camera—Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, and others. That had always stayed in my mind. I said to my producer on this film, Ben Hedin, that when we do this film, I want to do that. I don’t want us to have anybody on camera. I want people to become immersed in the material, the archival footage, from the March on Washington to the last evening of Dr. King’s life when he was in Memphis, Tennessee.
And then, the old movie clips was an idea I had because I was very familiar with how the FBI had been used by these old feature films and how the FBI was part of them, creating their own myth. So, one of the first things I said to the editor of this film, Laura Tomaselli, was, “Here’s a list of old films that you should use clips of that will give you a sense of the mythology of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover—Walk a Crooked Mile, I Was a Conman for the FBI, Big Jim McClain, The FBI Story with Jimmy Stewart, and that seminal series on ABC in the ‘60s called The FBI with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”
D: And what about including yourself?
SP: That’s kind of a normal thing now. Even the disembodied voices now are being used more and more in documentaries. I just watched a documentary about John Belushi [Belushi, directed by R.J. Cutler] last weekend and it was the same way; there was nobody on camera, all voiceover. There’s another documentary out now about Bruce Lee [Be Water, directed by Bao Nguyen], and they do the same thing.
D: MLK/FBI is based on the book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, written by David Garrow, who is also in the film. Was there any information from the book that you wanted to use, but didn’t?
SP: When you’re optioning a book by a writer, you’ve got to always pick and choose. You can’t document everything. There was some stuff about these two brothers who had been members of the Communist party and very close to Stanley Levinson, that initially we wanted to make more of in the film, but we are dealing with the length of the film, You try to get the film down from its first cut, which was about two-and-a-half hours, down to at least an hour and 45 minutes, which is the length it is now. You have to lose some stuff. Did I miss those things? A little bit, but not to the point where I feel like now I have to do a director’s cut.
D: The book was published over 30 years ago. If a film like this came out in the 1980s, would the response be the same?
SP: It probably would not have had the same kind of resonance that it’s having today because of the times we’re living in now. That’s why there is such a strong reaction to it; it’s really speaking to an America where we’re struggling to figure out what this country is all about.
D: Former FBI Director James Comey was included in the voice interviews. How do you decide whom to interview for this film?
SP: We knew that we didn’t want to do a lot of people. We wanted to do a couple of Dr. King’s closest associates. We also knew that we wanted to interview two historians; one of whom, Beverly Gage, could give us a sense of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, and another historian, Donna Murch, could really dig into what it was like in the FBI COINTELPRO and the organizations they were monitoring because they thought those organizations were a threat—Dr. King, the SCLC, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver.
And then, we wanted someone from the FBI. We found a former FBI agent who lives in Texas named Charles Knox, and then Ben said, “Why don’t we reach out to James Comey?” My first reaction was, “Do you think he’ll have anything to say? Do you think he’ll want to comment?” Ben said, “Let’s give it a try,” and we did and to my surprise, Comey said yeah.
D: J. Edgar Hoover attempted to discredit King by calling him dangerous, a Communist, etc. over 50 years ago, yet we still view King as an iconic civil rights leader. Why do you think Hoover’s tactics didn’t prevail over time?
SP: Well, it didn’t prevail because the press wouldn’t take it; they wouldn’t grab onto it and use it. We were living at a time in the ’60s where the press didn’t really want to dig into people’s personal lives. They were just concerned more about their political lives. So, they didn’t take the bait from Hoover.
The fact that then these tapes, we’re told, were locked away and wouldn’t be opened until 2027—many people weren’t thinking about it. I think the other thing to remember, too, is that since King’s assassination, he’s grown in stature. He’s a man who’s got a birthday named after him, who’s got schools and streets and everything named after him. He's become such a revered figure. No one’s dug into this aspect of his life, so we did.
D: There have been several films about King and only a few touch on the issues examined in this film—about the affairs, the allegations that he witnessed a rape, the label that he was the most notorious Negro in America. When King’s FBI surveillance tapes become available in 2027, there will be even more films about King. Will these new films change his legacy?
SP: I don’t think the opening of these tapes, or whatever films are made about King after this, will change his legacy; that’s been cemented. The only thing you could probably say, like Clarence Jones said, is that he was a man that was a flawed human being. Nobody is not flawed. Does that make his impact and what he did for America and the world any less important? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s going to have any impact.
Those who hated King back then, those who felt he was not the great Messiah, that he was basically destroying America—they will still feel the same. This will just make them feel more emboldened. [They would say,] “See, he was a womanizer; see, he wasn’t a good Christian.” Then you get into the whole thing about what is a good Christian.
Tracie Lewis writes, is directing a documentary and teaches the history of American film and world cinemas at Chaffey College.