In director Sam Pollard’s engrossing new documentary MLK/FBI, viewers are treated to an alternate historical reading of one of the 20th century’s most lionized civil-rights pioneers just in time for the national holiday marking his life and achievements. The film, which hit limited theatrical release and video-on-demand Friday, focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an erstwhile public enemy: a Communist Party sympathizer (tarred as the “world’s most notorious liar”), a depraved and regular participant of “sex orgies,” and complicit abettor to a rape committed by another minister in a Washington hotel room.
Those were among the litany of purported outrages by King, assembled over the course of his 1960s political ascendancy, at the behest of the crusading FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. MLK/FBI chronicles Hoover’s yearslong campaign of governmental harassment, wiretapping, dirt-digging, and attempted defamation — culminating in a letter suggesting the civil-rights leader commit suicide — that former FBI director James Comey, speaking in the film, calls the “darkest part of the bureau’s history.”
Drawing from Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Garrow’s controversial book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, the doc draws heavily upon a trove of newly declassified documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and unsealed by the National Archives to raise what the New York Times terms “urgent, sometimes uncomfortable questions about power, privacy and the ethical challenges of examining the past.” (The FBI’s extensive surveillance recordings of King will be released in 2027.)
Journeyman filmmaker Pollard, for his part, has served as an editor on numerous Spike Lee joints; producer of such acclaimed documentaries as Eyes on the Prize II, 4 Little Girls (about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing), and When the Levees Broke (chronicling the devastation following Hurricane Katrina); and director of titles including The Talk: Race in America and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me! Just days after the Capitol building was overrun by violent protesters in Washington, D.C., Pollard spoke with Vulture about what modern audiences can learn from King’s treatment by the FBI.
Help me understand the context within which this extensive FBI surveillance took place. In government circles in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was understood as the “most dangerous Negro” in America. Can you talk about that a bit?
The thing we forget about this gentleman — who was talking about civil rights, who was a peaceful activist, who had been influenced by Gandhi — is that to J. Edgar Hoover and even the Kennedys, they’re looking at somebody who’s been galvanizing groups of people in the South to say, “We want to break down the wall of segregation.” For many Americans, white Americans in particular, that was frightening. All of a sudden you’re going to change their notion of democracy where Black people had always been on the fringes. That’s why he was looked at by the FBI as a threat. He’s basically a nonviolent agitator. He’s not fighting. He’s got no guns. They’re doing sit-ins, marching, picketing. But he was saying, “We want a different America.” And people didn’t want to see that happen.
In addition to emphasizing the symbolic threat King posed to the status quo at that time, your film highlights the personal animosity J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon B. Johnson had toward him.
When J. Edgar Hoover and [FBI assistant director] William Sullivan heard that speech at the March on Washington, that was too much. King had to be stopped. When Hoover asked Bobby Kennedy to let them surveil King it was initially because there was this notion he was flirting with communism because of his relationship with [friend and de facto political adviser] Stanley Levison. As they started to wiretap King, they learned that he had a very complicated personal life outside of his marriage. That became fodder for Hoover and other members of the FBI to say, “If we can’t take him down because of his connection to the Communist Party, we can take him down because this minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church has a scandalous sex life.” But LBJ didn’t give a fuck about his sex life — excuse my language! After [MLK] won a Nobel Peace Prize, the thing that destroyed the relationship between King and Johnson and the administration in ’67 was King denouncing the war in Vietnam. You hear Johnson on the audio tapes with Hoover saying, “King is a danger. King is a danger.”
It’s fair to say he was a much more complex guy than has been portrayed in most history books.
It’s fascinating to think about the trajectory of his life. King didn’t want to become a leader of the movement. He was sort of thrown into it with the Montgomery bus boycott. He embraces that. But he’s dealing with those that are jealous of him. He knows he’s being monitored 24/7 by the FBI. He had to deal with the fact that Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy are saying, “Sever your relationship with this former communist Stanley Levison.” He’s going to cities like Birmingham and Albany and Chicago, getting pushback from people in the community saying, “We don’t want you here.” And even some Black people were saying, “Maybe you’re moving too quickly!”
Your film does a nuanced job of showing all the different forces — the political, the personal, the spiritual community pressures, everything in between — that King was up against while navigating this moment in history. But even while you vividly chronicle the lengths to which the FBI went to surveil him, the documentary presents relatively few details of what was contained in the documents and audio recordings you obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Did you deliberately leave things out of the film you thought were less than factual?
I don’t think we left that much out. With some of these transcripts, the redaction is so heavy, you can’t read through some of the stuff. The stuff we selected was the stuff we found we thought could be the most interesting and could really keep the audience on their toes. We pulled the stuff out that we thought could help us with the narrative.
One of the more potentially scurrilous things you cover are allegations that came to light in 2019 that King watched on while a pastor from his congregation raped a woman — that Dr. King “looked on and laughed” while that was happening. Your film doesn’t seem to lend much credence to the report. What do you make of the veracity of those documents?
The FBI — what was their goal? To destroy Dr. King’s reputation by any lengths they could. Now, I don’t know exactly what they heard on those tapes. Whatever they heard, they shaped into their own perspective. My attitude is that I would have to hear those tapes myself to have my own appraisal of what was going on in that room. What we were trying to do when we shaped that sequence was present that, “Here’s what the FBI says is on those tapes. You should take it with a grain of salt until you can hear the actual tapes yourself.” We could have edited it in a way that made the FBI look like they had done a great thing. They really got King by the testicles. We could have ratcheted it up. But we decided, no, let’s be a little more even-handed in our presentation. Because one of the things that [producer] Ben Hedin and myself kept asking ourselves was: Are we doing what the FBI set out to do with King? Are we going to sully his legacy? That was the question we kept asking ourselves when we approached that particular sequence.
You interview former FBI director James Comey in the film. He gives this startling admission: that the campaign against MLK represented “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.” A two-part question. How did you get Comey? And how surprised were you at the candor with which he characterized the FBI’s surveillance?
After we optioned David Garrow’s book, we spent hours interviewing him about King, the FBI, and Hoover. We put together a sizzle reel to get funding to do the actual film. And as we were thinking about who to interview, Ben says, “Why don’t we reach out to James Comey?” Ben and I got on the phone with Comey about five weeks later. It was about 20, 25 minutes. And when he says that it’s the darkest chapter in the history of the FBI, I’m cynical, Chris.
I see Comey as sort of a naïve Boy Scout. The cynical part of me thinks that there’s probably something even darker in those FBI vaults that will come out when I’m gone from this place. But the irony that hit me in the face as we’re doing the show is, the idea of those of us who consider ourselves liberal — and had issues with the FBI — became more positive about the FBI because Donald J. Trump is so negative about it. Your brain says, “If Trump says they’re horrible, then uh-oh, maybe we need to reappraise them. Maybe they’re not so bad.”
The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Exactly. And the letter that Sullivan and the FBI sent to crack King, [Comey] has a copy of that letter that he kept on his desk. When new FBI graduates were coming in, he wanted them to know about that period in the FBI’s history and not to repeat it. He corroborated that this letter was basically telling King to kill himself, which is absolutely astonishing.
One more astonishing thing: Your film posits that although the FBI’s avowed focus was on stamping out communism, for most of its history, the bureau was more systematic in waging campaigns against Black political movements. Coming just days after an insurrection in our nation’s Capitol, how do you see MLK/FBI fitting into the current cultural moment? What can viewers read from this chapter in history into what’s happening now?
Look at the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer. Look at the show of force that was brought out against them. Look at the lack of force [earlier this month] in Washington, D.C. You see the difference. You see the thinking of America. Black people are considered a threat. People of color are considered a threat. White people who physically — violently — invade the Capitol, the police don’t see them as a threat. I watched those images and was disgusted. I think an audience can look at this show, at the tumultuous history of the ’60s in America, and take a lesson from what we saw last week. In some ways, this kind of intensity and craziness is part and parcel of who America is. It’s been there for a long time and anybody who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the history of America. If America is ever going to change, we’ve got to come to grips with our past to deal with our present.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.