Martin Luther King Jr. probably had too much faith in the decency of America. In director Sam Pollard’s new documentary MLK/FBI, close friends and family of the murdered civil rights leader say he dismissed concerns that government authorities, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, were tracking his every move. The truth arrived in the form of a threatening letter and embarrassing recordings from bugged hotel rooms, sent to King in an effort to demoralize and silence him. A half century later, it’s the FBI that’s wracked with shame over its conduct—in the documentary (distributed by IFC and executive produced by, among others, Vanity Fair’s David Friend), former director James Comey says this represented the bureau’s “darkest” period.
“I’ve done lots of documentaries about the African American experience and the civil rights movement,” says Pollard, a three-time Emmy winner who shared an Oscar nomination with Spike Lee for their 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. “This was an opportunity to look at American history from a deeper, more nuanced perspective in terms of the role of the FBI in trying to discredit Dr. King and who he was, and breaking down the mythology of the FBI that I grew up with as a young African American man in the ’60s.”
The recordings of King, rumored to reveal his alleged affairs, are under seal by the National Archives until 2027, and the film explores whether they should be released at all. For Pollard, the possible benefits outweigh the potential cost. “It’ll be an opportunity to hear King maybe talking about strategies they had in places like Selma, in places like Birmingham, in places like Chicago…which can be very revealing about the mindset of the movement during that period,” he says. “Understanding that King was not a monogamous man, that he had a complex personal life, doesn’t demystify for me or take away his importance in terms of his place in American history. Nobody’s life is black and white. Human beings tend to try to [think that way], because it makes them feel good. I’m not here to make people feel good. I’m here to make people think.”
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