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Sam Pollard and ‘MLK/FBI’: The Filmmaker as Historian

Midway through the new documentary “MLK/FBI,” we get glimpses of a Martin Luther King Jr. not often seen in the usual montages of the civil rights movement. The 1963 March on Washington has taken place and he has accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. This King is under myriad strains from the burdens of leadership, budding concerns about Vietnam, political and mortal threats, and round-the-clock surveillance by his own country’s chief law enforcement agency.

Showing the interior life of a historical figure is not easy. But at certain points, “MLK/FBI,” directed by Sam Pollard, dwells on seemingly throwaway shots of the Rev. Dr. King on the road — composed as ever, yet worried, the world on his mind. These are subtle images, but they speak to the filmmaker’s talent for insight and nuance in portraying American history and culture.

“Here’s a man that was dealing with lots of things on his shoulders, and you see it etched in his face,” Pollard said in an interview that happened to take place on another momentous day for the country, when news shows shifted from Georgia’s Senate election results to the rampaging on Capitol Hill.

“MLK/FBI,” which opened Friday in theaters and on demand, is the latest chapter in a quietly monumental filmmaking career. Pollard’s documentary work alone, whether as director, editor or producer, includes “Eyes on the Prize II,” “4 Little Girls” (on the 1963 Birmingham bombings), several “American Masters” entries, and the symphonic “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” The 70-year-old filmmaker’s work has garnered Peabodys, Emmys, and an Academy Award nomination; on Saturday, the International Documentary Association is set to give him a career achievement award.

“When I think about his documentaries, they add up to a corpus — a way of telling African-American history in its various dimensions,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard University scholar and producer of two of Pollard’s films.

You might call this oeuvre “Sam Pollard’s America,” finding the individuality in even familiar historical and cultural figures, with depth, drama and an editor’s fresh eyes. His subjects range from Sammy Davis Jr. to Barack Obama, John Ford and John Wayne. But he has also covered the early-20th-century editor and activist William Monroe Trotter and Black life under the ravages of Reconstruction.

“I’m trying to look at the complexity in human life from different perspectives,” said Pollard, who invoked the varied dynamics in the music of Charles Mingus.

The breadth of his work reflects two tendencies that feed one another: an evident curiosity and an ability to collaborate effectively whether directing, editing or producing. That goes for fiction as well as nonfiction: a well-known chapter in Pollard’s career involved editing a string of films directed by Spike Lee, including features like “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Bamboozled,” and the documentaries “4 Little Girls,” “When the Levees Broke” and “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” (which he also co-produced).

“Samuel Pollard is a master filmmaker,” Spike Lee said, with finality. “If you say he’s just an editor or just a director, that’s not the whole story.”

“MLK/FBI,” which Pollard undertook with the writer Benjamin Hedin as producer, has already received plaudits. In The Times, A.O. Scott said the film “balances the prose of historical discourse with cinematic poetry.” In The Hollywood Reporter, Jourdain Searles called it “searing” in its portrayal of King’s harassment by the establishment.

The film’s genesis lies in documents released by the National Archives in 2017 and 2018 that the historian David J. Garrow wrote about in his book “The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which stirred controversy by delving into the bureau’s inflammatory allegations about King’s personal life. The documentary details J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless pursuit of King, whom he viewed as a national threat, and deepens our understanding of the leader and the challenges he faced. Historians, including Garrow, and some of King’s living peers offer commentary.

Hedin, who worked with Pollard on the 2016 documentary “Two Trains Runnin’,” about the Delta blues revival and the civil rights movement, said “MLK/FBI” offered an opportunity to illuminate a tortuous stretch of history.

“He wouldn’t be demythologizing someone,” Hedin said of Pollard’s approach to King. “He would simply be portraying him with responsibility and sympathy, the way he would a subject in his documentaries who was not known to the wider public.”

Though Pollard grew up in New York, his family came from the South — Mississippi on his father’s side, Georgia on his mother’s. “I kept feeling like I was hearing my grandmother, my uncles and my aunts and my cousins, when I was digging into the interviews of ‘4 Little Girls,’” he said.

His career began in a WNET film and television workshop intended to bring more people of color into editing rooms. His first job was on Bill Gunn’s stylized 1973 vampire film “Ganja & Hess,” and his mentors included the documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne and the editor Victor Kanefsky.

Pollard went on to work in both fiction and documentary film, including the classic hip-hop documentary “Style Wars,” and, in 1987, the filmmaker Henry Hampton hired him to be a producer-director on “Eyes on the Prize II.” With Hampton he also co-produced “I’ll Make Me a World,” the six-hour 1999 PBS series about Black art (a subject Pollard returns to with “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” due next month on HBO). As if matching Hampton’s scope, Pollard’s producing work only ramped up in the 2000s, alongside editing and directing entries for “American Masters” and teaching at New York University.

“He never stops working, but in a way to me that seems really joyful,” said Yance Ford, who directed “Strong Island,” about family grief, race and injustice. He views Pollard as a storytelling inspiration, and like almost everyone I contacted, Ford had a story about Pollard’s pay-it-forward attitude and Zen-like calm under pressure: When asked for feedback about a fund-raising trailer for “Strong Island,” Pollard dictated valuable edits in a late-night call.

The beat goes on for Pollard. A jazz enthusiast, he is excited for a long-gestating project on the drummer Max Roach. Hedin mentioned collaborating again, on a film “about the Lakota land claim on the Black Hills.”

Toward the end of our interview, I couldn’t help but remark to Pollard on the open-minded quality of his work: cleareyed about American history, culture, and race relations without condemnation or hopelessness. We had spoken on the morning of Jan. 6, a day that might well appear in a future documentary, when the Rev. Raphael Warnock — who had preached in the same Baptist church as King — was named the winner of a Senate race in Georgia, a few hours before the attack on the Capitol.

Pollard’s response to my comment reflected his continuing project to seek out a fresh understanding of history and art: “I would say that’s probably part of my notion of American optimism that I’m hanging on to.”

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