“It took its toll”: The Awful Legacy of the Battle of Martin Luther King with the FBI


As a kid in East Harlem in the 1960s, Sam Pollard, a documentary filmmaker, was “profoundly touched” by two incidents. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when Pollard was in junior high school. And, five years later, Martin Luther King’s murder. But Pollard realized as he grew up that his recollection of those events was fading around the edges. “When you think back and try to remember how you reacted to everything that happened, especially the March on Washington, it all swirls around in your head,” he says. “Some things get lost. You think, ‘Wow, did that really happen?’ It’s history, but not so long ago that I can’t remember it. “That’s as good a reason as any for why anyone in archival nonfiction cinema would follow a profession. For Pollard, a veteran documentary filmmaker nominated for an Oscar in 1997 for the film 4 Little Girls, about the murder of black children in 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan in a Baptist church, this is also the reason behind his latest feature MLK/FBI. The film attempts to enlighten and remind, not only looking at the nuanced legacy of a champion of civil rights almost revered as a hero, but also at the atmosphere of hostile federal law enforcement to him and his cause.

Pollard claims that without one another it is difficult to understand because they are competing forces wrapped in nostalgia and philosophy that need to be broken down to get to the facts. “I thought it might be a different way of looking at Dr. King and a different way of breaking down the mythology of the FBI,” he says. The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis, David Garrow’s sensational book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis provided what the director calls “the framework that became the genesis of the film.” Together, Pollard and Garrow extended their research, filing countless requests for freedom of information to access once-secret FBI records. “It’s not really that hard to get FBI material,” Pollard says with The actual tapes that will come out in 2027 are what will be important.

Pollard’s tapes, to be released later this decade under a court order in 1977, include the recordings secretly gathered by the FBI under J. During years of clandestine surveillance of King and his associates, Edgar Hoover. Just one aspect of a large harassment program, which is traced in great detail in the film using superbly preserved visual and audio records, was the frequent invasions of privacy. While the Bureau cultivated a fan base in an officially licensed TV series and films such as Walk a Crooked Mile and The FBI Story through laudatory portrayals, it did everything in its power to discredit King and defame him. His progressivism so threatened the status quo that agents sent a video of her husband supposedly having an extramarital affair to King’s wife Coretta, along with a note asking him to kill himself for the sake of his cause. Pollard takes a nuanced position, disclosing the inequality without excusing the indiscretions of King. “I think what’s fascinating about this material is the understanding that Dr. King was a human being,” he says. He is depicted as an iconic presence, but I felt strongly that we needed to depict him in a more nuanced manner. He was a multitasked guy, and like all of us. As he struggled with his personal life and his baggage, he led the fight. He struggled with the decision to speak out against the Vietnam War and the criticism he got in response. He struggled with the awareness he and his associates had.

But Pollard also deals with his subject intellectually, relating his views about activism with the U.S., which is fraught with racial problems to this day as anti-police comments become more common.

While King called for nonviolence, he also said that rioting is the language of the unheard-of, an argument centrists tend to use as a counterargument to more extreme demonstrations. “Dr. King made an appearance on television,” Pollard says, “and di di di


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