Hamptons Doc Fest: Revealing the Truth of the Civil Rights Struggle

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An image from Sam Pollard's film "MLK/FBI."

On the wall of Sam Pollard’s childhood home, there hung three portraits — Jesus Christ, President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — their gazes constant and presence ever-felt as the young man navigated life in East Harlem.

They were his heroes. They could do no wrong. But as he grew up and into his career — now as an Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker — Pollard knows better.

He sees them as the complicated men that they were, particularly the latter since making his latest documentary, “MLK/FBI,” the first to uncover the extent of the bureau’s deeply questionable monitoring and harassment of King and his closest confidants, which will open the virtual Hamptons Doc Fest on Friday, December 4, ahead of its official release by IFC Films on January 15.

Despite what the infamous surveillance and newly declassified files uncovered, Pollard’s opinion of the civil rights activist hasn’t changed one bit, he explained during a Zoom call last week. But his own responsibility to cover the movement — past, present and future — certainly has.

“If you had asked me this question back in 1988, I would have simply said, ‘My responsibility is to document the movement and the struggles they had to try to achieve victory.’ I would say it as simply as that,” Pollard said. “What I would say today is, ‘My responsibility as a filmmaker is to dig into the movement, to dig into the players of the movement — to look at them as more than just these men and women who were at the head of the movement.”

Through archival footage, clips from old Hollywood movies and voiceover interviews — featuring various historians, one of King’s speechwriters and even James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — Pollard demystifies the legend surrounding King by examining how the FBI and its then-leader, J. Edgar Hoover, manipulated his public image, dredging up details about his infidelity while tapping into white America’s anxiety around black empowerment, in a theme eerily familiar today.

“When you watch the film, it’s both amazingly relevant today and in some ways tragic because some of the things that you see in this film — between 1963, that’s the March on Washington, up to King’s assassination — it’s sort of like looking in the mirror and seeing the same thing today in America,” Pollard said. “It’s really frightening.”

Until reading David J. Garrow’s book, “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” Pollard had no grasp on the lengths the bureau took to undermine King, from wiretapping his home and office, to sending a letter to his wife, Coretta Scott King, to bugging his hotel rooms. Their damning memos reported multiple alleged affairs, group sex and, most controversially, King witnessing a rape.

The film does not shy away from any of this, Pollard said.

“We had moments of pause where we thought, ‘Would we be attacked for looking at King from a too-human perspective? Or about the rape allegations, or about the fact that we would really dig into who J. Edgar Hoover was, the whole idea that he was closeted?’” he said. “Those are a lot of questions that came up in our mind, but we soldiered on, as they say.”

Over the two and a half years it took to make “MLK/FBI” — “which is relatively short, in the history of documentary filmmaking,” Pollard said — the film has taken on more relevance than the filmmaker ever imagined, its release set against the resurgence of the civil rights movement through Black Lives Matter.

“I knew the film would be relevant two and a half years ago because lots of what’s happening in America, even back two and a half years ago, gives you sense of what things were like in the ’60s, particularly 1968,” Pollard said, referring to the assassination of King on April 4, 1968, two days after the filmmaker turned 18. “I didn’t know that it would be so intensely relevant in terms of what has happened in the last nine, 10 months — with the pandemic, with George Floyd’s death, with Breonna Taylor’s death, the other deaths. Who knew it would be so relevant today?”

The original King surveillance tapes are under court seal at the National Archives until February 2027, the summaries inadvertently released online as part of the John F. Kennedy assassination files in 2017 and 2018. What will eventually come from the recordings is of no concern to Pollard, he said. Ultimately, they will flesh out what “MLK/FBI” already explores: a look at King “not just as the icon that we all see him as today, but someone who was a human being,” he said.

“What’s happened to me as a documentary filmmaker is as I’ve gotten older, and I’m not gonna say wiser,” he said with a laugh, “I want to understand how people tick. I’m always curious. My curiosity level is extremely high, even at this stage of my life, of my career. That’s what I want to be able to do with these films about the movement. I want to dig into the people, dig into the movement, dig into the pros and cons.

“I don’t always want to make it look like these were the good guys and those were the bad guys, and that was simply it,” he said. “No, it was much more complex than that.”

“MLK/FBI,” by Sam Pollard, opens the 13th annual Hamptons Doc Fest on Friday, December 4, at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Pollard and Variety’s film awards editor, Clayton Davis. The festival runs virtually through Sunday, December 13. Tickets are $12, or $125 for a festival pass at hamptonsdocfest.com.

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