Sam Pollard is one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers working today. Pollard, an Academy Award nominee and winner of multiple Emmy Awards, has directed everything from blues documentaries (Two Trains Runnin' ) to deep looks at historical legends (Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me). He's worked alongside Spike Lee, producing the documentary Four Little Girls about the 1965 Birmingham church bombings, and edited several of Lee’s films: Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Girl 6, Clockers, and Bamboozled.
His newest documentary film, MLK/FBI, releases today and has already received critical praise and been named Best Documentary at the San Diego International Film Festival.
Pollard sat down for a virtual interview to talk about his newest work, the joys of documentary filmmaking, Hollywood mythmaking, and what history can tell us about our present.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HUTCHINSON: You've worked with Spike Lee on some of his narrative projects yet still do most of your work in documentaries. Is that form what you're most passionate about?
POLLARD: Yeah, I am. I mean, it's sort of ironic. Initially, when I got into the business many, many years ago, I wanted to be a feature film editor of narrative films, because I had grown up watching lots of narrative films. So that was my goal. But I was very fortunate that, in retrospect, at the end of it, who I first worked with as an apprentice editor, he introduced me to the world of documentaries. And I never looked back. I think one of the reasons that I love documentaries so much is because when I was a young editor I was kind of shy and more introverted. The editing of the documentary was a way to help shape a narrative without having to be on location or talk to people. I just really, really got engaged by it. The idea of telling real stories of real people, it just grabbed me, and I still like it. I always, even from when I was in middle school, high school, I always loved history.
It was on my mind because your film MLK/FBI is releasing on the same day as One Night in Miami, which is a dramatized retelling of historical civil rights figures, whereas your film is a factual telling that opts to use extensive historical footage. What unique tools do you think the documentary form provides?
The tool that you need to be able to really get into is doing research and understanding that reading is a great part of the process in making a documentary come to life. If you don't do your homework in terms of the research, you won't be able to make the best film you can. I mean, research is a very invaluable component to making a documentary. Historical ones in particular, but any kind of documentary.
I'll give you a great example. About five years ago, six years ago, I was asked to be the supervising editor on this documentary about Frank Sinatra, directed by Alex Gibney called All or Nothing at All. I grew up with Sinatra's music and watching his movies. I was a big fan. But even though I thought I knew about Sinatra, I went and got a couple of huge books that I read about his whole life, which I kind of knew, but now these books gave me more detail. That was part of my own personal research. As much as I knew about Sinatra, I felt I didn't know everything. So I wanted to read. That's one of the things that are wonderful about documentaries. You get a chance to dig into history, people's histories, general history, very specific history. It's a great part of the process.
Something I was stuck by with this most recent documentary was that you cut to interview subjects' voices but not visuals. Instead, you keep us grounded in a lot of the historical footage throughout most of the film until a final reflective epilogue. What motivated that framing choice?
The original concept at the very beginning before we even started shooting anything or gathering archival was I had said to our producer, Ben Hedin, that I felt that we should keep all the interviews off camera. They should all be audio. I'd seen a film back in 2011-12 called the Black Power Mixtape by a Swedish filmmaker. What was fascinating about that film was that he really engaged in this material of the '70s Black Power Movement, but everybody who talked about it, you didn't see them as talking heads. They were just off-camera, Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, and others. So it made me think that I wanted to make sure the audience really got into this material and really were engaged by the archival material. I felt we should try that same strategy.
Now the epilogue was really the idea of our editor, Laura Tomaselli, because we had shot all these interviews on camera, except for James Comey, and we initially thought we'd never seen anybody on camera. We just as a failsafe had shot them on camera just in case our funders had really got nervous and said, 'we can't, we can't handle not seeing anybody on camera.' But that wasn't the case. As Laura was building the narrative structure, and she got to the epilogue, she felt like it'd be great now to reveal who was talking, even though you see their lower thirds throughout the film. So I thought it was a very ingenious and smart idea. You know, sometimes things happen in the editing process. That is what I like, I like to have the editor create something that surprises me. And she did.
How much of this, as someone who's done a lot of editing work, was you in the editing booth working through everything? And how long of a process was it?
The editing process I would say took six to eight months. And, you know, being an editor for so many years, the way I always like to work was to sit with the director initially to talk about what they're looking for. What they like, what they shot. And then I like for them to walk away. [Laughs.] You know, and maybe come in once a month, every couple of weeks. Show me something you know, and I'll show them something. I always felt if the director sat over me 24/7 it really stymied what I call my own creativity. And then I felt, if I had to listen to a director tell me where to make every cut, it would get me very upset. And it would feel like I wasn't being very creative. So I try to be extremely respectful to editors, I like to give them room to create. Because the filmmaking process is a collaborative process. If you give the people you collaborate with room to create, they'll bring stuff to the table that you didn't even consider.
One thing I was struck by, when it comes to your portrayal of Dr. King, was that in our modern mindset, we consider him to be a widely popular, well-respected figure, which he is. But your documentary really shows a coordinated, expansive campaign to discredit him and that he was widely unpopular, especially amongst white people. In your documentary, they speak very candidly about their distaste for him. How do you think it will fit into our current mindset, where we view him as this widely popular figure?
It wasn't surprising, but it was a little bit of a wake-up call to see that footage of these people, these street interviews where the one gentleman says, 'Hoover thinks King is terrible, but I think he's ten times worse.' And then the white woman says, 'I don't like him because he's uppity.' They took a poll, and Hoover was much more popular than Dr. King. Now, you know, I grew up in the '60s, I grew up when there was the speech at the March on Washington. In our household King was a great man; maybe I didn't see those news pieces back then.
It's always surprised me how he was looked upon as someone who was upending the notion of American democracy. That he could be seen by J. Edgar Hoover and William Sullivan and other people in the FBI as 'the most dangerous negro in America.' I mean, Dr. King? But back in the '50s and early '60s that's how he was portrayed. I mean they thought he was as dangerous as Malcolm X or the Black Panther Party, which is amazing when you think back about it. It just goes to show you that, in America, anytime a group steps up and says, 'we want change,' the American status quo says, 'Whoa, hold off there. What are you trying to do? You're dangerous.' It's fascinating to me.
I want to ask about Hoover's role in this because in many ways, he has had the opposite trajectory. He was considered this very popular figure, especially to the white populace, with his campaign of making himself out to be a hero. As information has come out, it's clear that he was much more authoritarian and overreaching. How did you balance the back and forth between Dr. King and Hoover?
We tried to create a film where you saw the parallel: the ascendancy of King and Hoover's obsession with discrediting and destroying Dr. King's reputation. Even for me, in 1963, 1964, I saw Hoover as a hero. I had seen all these movies that we use clips from, you know, Big Jim McLain, Walk a Crooked Mile, The FBI Story with Jimmy Stewart. He's the epitome of the all-American good guy, so if he's working for the FBI, they can't be bad. And I'd watched that seminal show on ABC called The F.B.I. with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. So I saw Hoover as a hero too. That's what's fascinating about making these documentaries. You start to learn how people's vision can change as you learn more, the more you dig into their lives and into the context of what they were connected to.
You include Jim Comey in this and his quote about this being the darkest chapter in the FBI's history…
Or at least, in his perspective it is...
You said it right there. From his perspective it is the darkest chapter, but you know, and I know, that if we go down in the vaults of the FBI, there is some dark stuff down there man that could be revealed. [Laughs.] I'm glad you understand that. When he said that to us in the interview, I didn't chuckle outwardly, but inside, I chuckled because I see Comey as a little bit of a naive Boy Scout. Here's a guy who thought that Trump would pay attention to him and follow the rule of law. [Laughs.]
Do you think that is the closest the FBI will ever get to acknowledging their role in King's downfall and death?
I would be very surprised if at some point in my lifetime, maybe sometime in your life because you'll be around probably longer than me, if the FBI would come out and actually apologize. What they should do is apologize to the King family for the unsavory tactics that were done to Dr. King and his associates in the '60s. I doubt they'll ever get an open apology.
When it comes to some of those unsavory tactics, I'm thinking about our current moment with the polar opposites of the insurrection at the Capitol and then, also, Reverend Warnock's election, who had himself been at the Capitol not long before that peacefully praying in a demonstration to support health care rights where he was arrested. How do you see the different levels of force against different groups and movements through your lens?
America has and will still live with this double standard. You know, the Black Lives Matter folks go and demonstrate in DC in the summer. The government brings out a huge force with the National Guard lined up on the Capitol steps. So anybody who dared to try to cross over the Capitol steps would've been arrested. You saw people being arrested and manhandled. Then, last Wednesday, this crowd fired up by Mr. Trump heads down to the Capitol and basically, a bunch of white guys and ladies, there's not much resistance. I mean, there's some but not much, because there's a double standard here. Somebody thought, well, these people are sure that they're supporting the idea that Trump says this election is false. Sure they're angry, but they're not gonna be violent. They're not gonna attack the Capitol building. HA HA. But that's because of the color of their skin, man. There is a double standard in America, which, you know, it's existed for quite a long time.
You can stream MLK/FBI starting today.