By Tyler Aquilina
January 15, 2021 at 07:45 AM EST
Credit: IFC Films

The new documentary MLK/FBI is nothing less than a new draft of history, digging into a trove of recently declassified FBI documents stemming from the bureau's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the 1960s. Spearheaded by then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, this surveillance was conducted in hopes of obtaining intelligence that would discredit the civil rights leader.

The FBI's monitoring of King has long been known to historians, as has some of the information it revealed — notably King's multiple extramarital affairs — but the documents themselves offer new details and revelations to grapple with. (For instance, in 2019, biographer David Garrow discovered previously undisclosed allegations that King stood by while a woman was raped in a hotel room.) For MLK/FBI director Sam Pollard, these materials presented an opportunity to view a canonized historical figure "as a much more complicated human being who had his own personal flaws."

"The challenge, always, with these films is how to dig into these people to build out the complexity of their lives in ways that you would not have envisioned them before," says Pollard, whose credits include directing more than a dozen documentaries and editing several Spike Lee films. "If you do the proper research, and you interview the proper people, you can get that."

With MLK/FBI, Pollard wanted to deconstruct the myths surrounding not just King, but also the FBI and Hoover, who viewed King as a danger to the country. The film unpacks the way media built up the FBI's longstanding image and reputation (using clips from movies and TV shows of the time), the historical relationship between law enforcement and Black activism, and even the practice of history itself. (As one interviewee notes in the film, "One of the difficulties for historians in dealing with the fruits of this surveillance of King is whether or not we then become complicit in what the FBI was doing.")

"Part of the responsibility of the filmmaker is that when you delve into material like this, you've got to ask yourself why you're doing it," Pollard says. "Are you going to be sensationalistic in your approach to it, are you going to try to do it in a balanced and respectful way? You have to ask yourself those questions. If you don't, then to me, you're not being a responsible filmmaker."

MLK/FBI is available now on VOD and digital platforms. Ahead of its release, Pollard spoke to EW about the questions and challenges he faced while making the film, how he put it together, and how the story echoes forward to our current moment.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: These documents you're dealing with have so recently been made publicly available. How do you feel about your responsibility to be one of the first to write a new draft of history with this information?
SAM POLLARD: It's one of the questions that [producer] Ben Hedin and I grappled with as we were making the film: Were we doing exactly what the FBI wanted to do back in the '60s in exposing some of this material? And my response is that, as a documentary filmmaker who's always trying to be responsible and balanced in telling the story, even though we're dealing with some very sensitive stuff in terms of Dr. King's personal life, I felt it was an opportunity for us to have a way to see Dr. King as a human being, who was not deified as an icon or a saint. He was not only the leader of the civil rights struggle in the late '50s and early '60s, but he was also a man who struggled with the idea that he was going to go against not only his own civil rights constituency, but the federal government when he came out against Vietnam. He's a man who absolutely had to have known he was being monitored and surveilled by the FBI for those many reasons. There's lots of things we had to deal with to show he was a human being and had his own flaws. We had a responsibility to try to tell that story, and the story of what the FBI was trying to do to discredit and destroy his reputation.

Could you tell us how this project started for you and what the timeline looked like?
We started this in 2017. Ben Hedin had read David Garrow's [1981] book about MLK and the FBI. He finished the book, he gave me a call, and he said, "I think we've found our next film." I got a copy of the book and I read it, and I immediately called him back and I said, "You're absolutely right." So that was the genesis of it. We reached out to David Garrow, and then we flew out to Pittsburgh, where he lived, and we spent one day interviewing him for over four hours about basically framing all the material that was in his book. And we did go back to him, in 2019, after he had done an article about King's supposed rape allegations. I asked him the question you asked me: what his responsibility was as a historian in dredging up this stuff about King's supposed involvement in these rape allegations. It was an interesting kind of groundswell of how this film came together.

Credit: IFC Films

Can you tell us more about the research process, and the material you looked at, and how you went about obtaining and sifting through these FBI documents?
Well, Ben had started to collect all the FBI documents, which were heavily redacted. And he had started pinpointing things he thought would be effective for the storytelling about King, King's trajectory within the civil rights movement, and the FBI's monitoring of him. Then we decided we needed to get a couple archival producers — a woman named Sheila Griffin, and another archival producer named Brian Becker, who did a tremendous job. And they asked me, "What are we looking for?" I basically gave them what I called "the usual suspects": The March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, the trials and tribulations of Birmingham, Georgia, Chicago. All this stuff I knew about King from other documentaries I had worked on. But then I said to Brian, "If you can find anything that I haven't seen, that would be fantastic." That's what he did. He was able to find material that I hadn't seen before, like King with his family, when they were kids, and his parents at somebody's house.

And then the thing that I brought to the table was the idea of the old movie clips. I compiled a list of all these old movies which I had seen: Walk a Crooked Mile, Big Jim McLain with John Wayne and James Arness, The FBI Story with Jimmy Stewart, and The FBI TV series with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. This film relies heavily on archival material and stills and those old movie clips. We felt that was an important way to tell the story. That's why we didn't have any talking heads; we wanted to keep the audience engaged in the archival material.

With a film like this that's almost completely made up of archival material, how does your previous experience as a film editor impact your work?
Every film that I direct is impacted by my years of experience as an editor. I'm always understanding that you want the archival footage to help you tell the story. You want to find enough of it and find material you've never seen before that can help you tell the story in a new and refreshing way. Sometimes, if you've seen this archival material lots of times, you fall into a pattern of editing it the same way every time. The March on Washington sequence in this film is, to me, exquisitely edited in a different way than I had seen it done in any other film. That's the challenge: to take some of this footage that you've seen a hundred times and give it a different editorial spin.

Looking ahead, the actual FBI tapes of MLK are supposed to be released later this decade. [They remain under court seal until 2027.] How do you think that information will continue to reshape our view of history and our view of King?
This is my take on what will happen: Those who never thought King was worth anything, like the people in the film who thought he was too uppity or that he was a Communist, those people who may still think that way about Dr. King will still feel that way, and feel emboldened by listening to some of what they feel might be salacious material on the tapes. Those of us who grew up with Dr. King and revered what he meant to America will [revere him] as he was revered then. Because this doesn't change the fact that he did great things for America.

And one of the things that I'm hoping will come out through these tapes is not the salacious material, but the stuff where you see [King] in dialogues with people like [Ralph] Abernathy, and Andrew Young, and Clarence Jones, and others talking about these strategies that they're going to roll out in cities like Birmingham and Selma. That's what I'm hoping to hear on those tapes.

So many of the ideas this movie is grappling with are ideas and issues we're grappling with in our modern society. What are some of the things you took away from telling this story that apply to our current moment in history?
The things I took away from this film that, to me, still apply to America, is that when people are in positions of power, and they feel threatened by the people who are saying, "We want change," they will go to any lengths to try to discredit and destroy those people. I mean, the idea that J. Edgar Hoover said, "This man is a threat because he may be in league with Communists," the idea that "This man is a threat because he's not a good Christian," the idea that he's trying to destroy the fabric of American democracy — you hear that same kind of language today. We did see it with Trump in Georgia: the idea that if you elect a Democrat, you will destroy our suburbs. The idea that someone would say to Dr. King, "Don't you feel that these peaceful protests are leading to the riots? Is it an issue that people want to move too fast?" You hear that now. "Don't you think that the Black Lives protests are leading to people like antifa that are going to cause violence in the cities?" No, it's not the peaceful protests. People are saying, "Enough is enough." That happened in the '60s, it happened in 2020. Same thing. That's why it resonates, this film, isn't it? Because a lot of that stuff we're seeing in this film still exists in America today. Even with some of the progressive things that have happened in America. Even with the election of a Black president. Even with the election of a female person of color as vice president.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Related content: