MLK/FBI, a new and acclaimed documentary by filmmaker and SVA MFA Social Documentary Film faculty member Sam Pollard, premieres tomorrow, arriving at a moment when the story it tells—given the galvanizing civil-rights protests of this past summer and the poisonous political rhetoric of the past four years—is as timely as ever.
Pollard, a veteran editor, producer, and director, is among cinema’s most dedicated chroniclers of the Black experience in America. He’s collaborated with documentary giants like St. Clair Bourne, Henry Hampton and Spike Lee, earning an Oscar nomination in 1997 for producing and editing Lee’s 4 Little Girls—one of more than 10 films he has worked on with the director. His dozens of other credits include, most recently, work on HBO’s acclaimed documentary miniseries Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, which was co-produced by MFA Social Documentary Film Chair Maro Chermayeff.
Since 2017, Pollard has been developing, producing, directing and finishing MLK/FBI—his gripping, incendiary portrait of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the iconic civil-rights leader, which was part of a coordinated effort to undermine and discredit Dr. King and his message. He was still shooting footage when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the States last March, and editing during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when much of what was happening on his television—namely, right-wing media trying to discredit the peaceful protests—mirrored the discrediting tactics used by J. Edgar Hoover and his agency during the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
“The thing that’s so potent about this film, the kind of language you’re still hearing today in America,” Pollard said in a recent video Q&A with Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Radhika Jones. “History constantly repeats itself. The dog whistles about ‘King is a communist,’ you hear those same ideas today. ‘Don’t you feel that those peaceful protesters are leading to the riots?’ It’s the same language we hear about Black Lives Matter protests, ‘Don’t you think they’re causing the riots?’ Now instead of communists [supposedly] destroying America, they’re using Antifa.”
MLK/FBI reminds viewers that Martin Luther King, Jr., was regarded as a divisive, even dangerous figure by much of the establishment in his time. Significantly, Dr. King’s opposition included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw him as a threat to the United States and the foothold white supremacist ideology had in the country.
“They were still seen as leftist radicals,” Pollard told Jones. In Hoover’s eyes, “they were destroying the fabric of American democracy.”
Inspired by historian David Garrow’s work, MLK/FBI uses recently declassified files to study the FBI’s motives and methods. The film details a relentless and lawless campaign waged against King, during which the agency engaged in wiretapping, misinformation, allegations of sexual impropriety and other “dastardly, dirty things,” Pollard said. And there are surely more revelations to come, as additional FBI materials relating to King are due to be declassified in 2027.
Disturbing though it may be, the film serves as a potent reminder that real social and political progress is always hard-won, and that the ugly episodes in our history must be faced head-on.
“We want the audience to be immersed in the material,” Pollard said. “We want you to be with Dr. King, be with the Civil Rights struggle, and even be with the FBI, surveilling King.”
MLK/FBI arrives tomorrow, January 15, in a limited theatrical release and on VOD. For more information, visit mlkfbi.com.
Opening in theaters and on demand Friday, January 15.
Director: Sam Pollard
Starring: Martin Luther King
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today as an American hero: a bridge-builder, a shrewd political tactician, and a moral leader. Yet throughout his history-altering political career, he was often treated by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies like an enemy of the state. In this virtuosic documentary, award-winning editor and director Sam Pollard (Editor, 4 LITTLE GIRLS, MO’ BETTER BLUES; Director/Producer, EYEZ ON THE PRIZE, SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: I’VE GOTTA BE ME) lays out a detailed account of the FBI surveillance that dogged King’s activism throughout the ’50s and ’60s, fueled by the racist and red-baiting paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover. In crafting a rich archival tapestry, featuring some revelatory restored footage of King, Pollard urges us to remember that true American progress is always hard-won.