It’s been public knowledge for decades that the FBI waged all-out war on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with particular intensity directed at Martin Luther King Jr. Yet it’s not until now that a major film has opened up this dark chapter in US history. MLK/FBI is a terrific work of archival documentary, gathering numerous materials, including reams of direct transcripts of internal FBI communications about King, to tell its story. I sat down with the film’s director Sam Pollard to discuss how his crew assembled their narrative, how he got James Comey to sit down for an interview, and more.
Hyperallergic: What were the major sources you drew footage, recordings, and other materials from?
Sam Pollard: Well, there was all of the material from the Civil Rights Movement that has been seen many times: Dr. King’s March on Washington speech, the footage of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, footage of him in Birmingham, the footage at the Riverside Church, news articles. You always need a really good archivist to find the stuff you’re going to need to shape the narrative. We had a very good archival producer for this film, Brian Becker, who enabled us to find some wonderful stuff that even I hadn’t seen or heard — for example, the footage of Dr. King doing one of his first interviews in Montgomery, Alabama, or Dr. King with his children and his wife and his parents when they were young.
It’s sort of like being an archaeologist, doing that deep dive and finding stuff. ABC, CBS, NBC, all these news institutions — they’re palaces for this material and have been around for many years. I think one of the things that’s amazing, though, is that the quality of the copies they gave us was so pristine. I’d never seen the March of Washington footage so high-resolution.
H: What about materials that were internal to the government? Did you discover anything surprising in there?
SP: We sent a FOIA request and we got stuff, mainly new transcripts, released. The transcripts are redacted in places, and for that and other reasons it would have been great if we had the original audio and could actually hear what was going on. But it’ll be another six years before that’s released. Regardless, I think the transcripts are dramatic enough on their own. Nothing really surprised me. I think I’m pretty far beyond being able to be shocked by anything they’ve done at this point. But just reading some of those transcripts and learning what the FBI was listening to Dr. King doing, that was still pretty fascinating. They went to such lengths to get documentation of Dr. King and try to undercut who he was.
H: Do you think there will be any surprises when more records are released to the public?
SP: Everybody’s probably salivating at the idea of hearing some of the sexual stuff they had on Dr. King. I’m of a different perspective. I’m curious about the conversations King had with his associates when they were in cities like Birmingham, Albany, Selma, Chicago. What were they talking about in terms of how to strategize, how to deal with sit-ins and strikes? What kind of retaliation did they expect? That’s what I would like to hear if and when those tapes are released.
H: How did you pick which talking heads to feature?
SP: Well, we decided first of all that we wanted a couple of Dr. King’s close confidants, so that led us to Andy Young and Clarence Jones. Then we decided we needed to have two historians — one who could really dig into who the FBI was and what it’s about, that was Beverley Gage, and someone who could tell us about the FBI specifically in the ’60s, which led us to Donna Murch. Then we said to ourselves, ‘We’d love to hear from somebody who was actually in the FBI,’ and we found a former agent who lived in Texas. Then [producer Benjamin Hedin] said, ‘Why don’t you reach out to James Comey and see if he’s interested too?’ So we did, and to my surprise, Comey said yes. So we had two FBI agents, two confidants of Dr. King, two historians, and [history writer] David Garrow. It was a small group of people, which is pretty unusual for a documentary. Usually you interview 20–25 experts and have 10–15 in the final film.
H: This film’s arriving at a time when, in some ways, there’s been this weird flip in public perception of intelligence agencies. Now a lot of liberals want them to save the day, while more conservatives distrust them, which is quite a turnaround from the history this film is about.
SP: I think a lot of it has to do with the gentleman in the White House. He’s demonized the FBI so much that it makes those of us who are to the left to think that maybe they’re not so bad. You’re absolutely right; he has flipped a switch in how we look at the FBI.
H: Do you think that switch will stay flipped with a new president?
SP: No, it won’t. We can’t let it. Comey says in the film that as far as he’s concerned, that time in the ’60s with William Sullivan, Hoover, and COINTELPRO was the darkest period in the history of the FBI. [The interviewer raises an eyebrow.] Well, you see what you just did? I think the same thing. Obviously, there’s even darker stuff in the vaults of the FBI.
H: Well, obviously they failed to do anything about the current administration. And now we see actively hostile white supremacists in the streets, and they haven’t done anything to stop that either. And yet people still call for stronger security laws.
SP: Well, you know and I know that when America wants to bring out their force of arms, they know how. We saw it with the Black Lives Matter protests all last year. We saw it last Wednesday [January 6], man. If they had the armed force they had when Black Lives Matter was protesting in DC last summer, no one would have breached the Capitol. And when America wants to ratchet up laws, who is that going to have the most impact on? People of color. People who are not white supremacists.
H: Well, your film touches on the direct links between white supremacy and the authorities. That’s another reason that we need films like this, to remind people of this history.
SP: That’s right. We should be reminded. We should be reminded that this road we went down in the ’60s is one we’re constantly repeating. We’ve always lived in a complicated world. The world is even more complicated now because of what we’ve gone through in the last four years. Maybe it all came about with the election of Barack Obama. Maybe this notion that the stuff that we thought had disappeared in America was just underground. It needs something to turn the light on and have the roaches flying out. These are very dangerous times in America. Can our democracy withstand this onslaught? I don’t know.
In 1968, I was 18 years old. My birthday was two days before Dr. King was assassinated. I thought America was in a real tumultuous period. For a while I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’ll get better.’ We had the ’70s, then we had the ’80s with Reagan. It’s always a back and forth — momentum, backlash. That’s what we’re seeing now, we’re seeing backlash. The question is, can we have forward momentum again?
MLK/FBI is now in virtual cinemas and on VOD.