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How the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. was bolstered by Hollywood

“Every country has to build themselves up on propaganda.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looks at the camera, with points of light obscuring parts of his face.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI.
IFC Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. was both revered and loathed, beloved and hated. An outspoken voice on behalf of equality and justice for Black Americans, he was feared by the white establishment, seen as a threat to the social order. And that reputation is especially evident in who chose to closely monitor his activities, tap his phones, and attempt to blackmail him into suicide: the FBI.

The FBI’s scrutiny of King is the subject of MLK/FBI, a new documentary from Emmy-winning director Sam Pollard. Leaning on newly declassified documents about the Bureau’s surveillance of King under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the film explores in detail how the FBI tracked King and what kind of threats it claimed he posed to America. MLK/FBI shows how decades of Hollywood portrayals of Black men and the FBI contributed to perceptions of King. And it doesn’t shy away from how the FBI’s invasion of King’s privacy turned up facts about his life and marriage that complicate his legacy.

In many ways, it’s the perfect film to watch early in 2021 — an examination of government overreach, entertainment’s effects on American imaginations, and how little has changed in the way that establishment voices so often try to silence Black activists. I spoke with Pollard about making the film, Hollywood’s exaltation of FBI agents and cowboy figures, and the responsibility filmmakers have to help audiences see three-dimensional characters.

Whenever there’s a big moment in the news — like protests against police brutality last summer or riots at the Capitol last week, for instance — people start quoting Martin Luther King Jr. But often it seems like people are just appropriating his words for their own cause, rather than putting his quotes in the context of what he actually worked for. How do you approach an icon like King when you’re making a film about him, knowing how often he is misrepresented?

I would first say that I try not to see anybody, no matter how special, as iconic. I try to see them as human beings, knowing that they did great things. That’s how I define Dr. King. He’s a human being who did great things. Nobody, nobody walks on water, not even Dr. King.

As a documentary filmmaker, the films I tackle, the subjects I tackle, the folks that I tackle, I’m trying to show them in all of their complexity, as much as I can — knowing full well there may be things that will come down the pike years later that will unearth even more about them. That was the agenda and the goal of doing this film, about King and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. To dig into who they were, what they were all about, and understanding that a lot of what we’ve seen in this country in the past week is systemic in terms of the DNA of this country.

A crowd of Black people stand at one end of the Washington Mall.
A scene from the March on Washington in MLK/FBI.
IFC Films

What we saw last Wednesday, it wasn’t an anomaly. No one should think, Oh, my god, how could this happen in America? It happened every day, many, many years ago, all around the country. When Black communities were self-sustaining, and white people outside their community saw it and didn’t like it, they said, “We don’t want those communities to exist.” They would go in there and they would kill people, they would maraud and they would destroy those communities. The Tulsa race massacre in 1921. The Red Summer of 1919. This is not an anomaly. Black people were being lynched and murdered like this, because other people said, “We don’t want you to have a voice. We don’t want you to go near our white women.” This is America, man.

I was reading news coverage and discovered that one of the rioters, a well-known proponent of QAnon, the one wearing the horns, claimed he was engaging in civil disobedience like Dr. King. I saw other people quoting Dr. King’s line about how a riot is the language of the unheard. It seems like — ironically, given history — people twist Dr. King’s words for their own ends.

Listen, here’s the big difference. When King and his folks demonstrated in America, they did it peacefully. They did not attack some building or some people and say, “We want our voices heard.” They did it peacefully. They banded together, they marched together, they did sit-ins. Imagine these young Black college students in the late ’50s, early ’60s, doing the sit-ins, where they would have milk thrown on them. They’d be dragged out of chairs. They would be arrested and locked away because they were doing peaceful demonstrations.

That’s a complete difference from what these people were doing last week. They should be ashamed that they even put King’s names in their mouth. It was civil disobedience with Dr. King and the SCLC movement. [Note: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is the Black civil rights advocacy organization founded by King that spearheaded events such as the March on Washington and the Selma voting rights movement.] That was civil disobedience. This was not civil. This was armed insurrection. Big difference.

You said you don’t like to think of anyone as an icon — you prefer to see them as a complex human being. That seems tricky when you’re making a documentary because people sometimes don’t like to see leaders as complex. When they put someone on a pedestal, and then that person is shown to be a full, three-dimensional human being, it frustrates them. So as a documentarian, how do you approach your work?

Here’s the responsibility I have as a filmmaker, which has evolved over the years. It’s to look at these characters, these human beings, these real-life people, as real people. To look at someone like Dr. King as a human being who had, like many of us, a very complicated life. For example, here was a man who became — not that he wanted to become, but when he became — the leader of the movement after the Montgomery bus boycott. He goes on to form the SCLC, knowing full well that it’s going to be an uphill battle. But he believes in it. He believes in the notion of integration. There’s a man who understands that he’s going to catch brickbats from white people. And sometimes Black people say, “Why do you want to do all of that? Why can’t we just leave everything alone? You know, why can’t we all just get along?”

Here’s a man who leads a group of people to the March in Washington, who basically said, “We want better jobs. We are going to be integrated.” Here’s a man who understood that he was going to be watched and monitored by the FBI. Here is a man who had a very complicated personal life. Here was a man who, by 1967, realized he couldn’t just be a voice about the civil rights movement. He wanted to be a voice about the fact that America should not be in Vietnam, knowing full well that he would catch pushback from not only those in the civil rights community, but from LBJ and the Johnson administration, who was a close ally up to that point.

This was a complicated human being who understood all of these things he had to deal with on a daily basis. It wasn’t an easy journey, but was the journey he knew he had to take.

King stands at a podium and addresses a crowd.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI.
IFC Films

In this film, you’re bringing parts of King’s life to the screen that aren’t unknown, but might be unfamiliar to some of the audience. For instance, the depth of the FBI’s surveillance of him may surprise the audience, and it has some really serious implications. How do you present that in a way that will really hit home with the audience? What’s your process?

The process is this: You do your research as thoroughly as possible. You try to find the voices that can help articulate the story, particularly in a documentary. And you try not to create “tabloid filmmaking.” You try not to make it so it’s like, Oh, my god, look what King did. Wasn’t it terrible? That’s not the job. My job is to show you King and all of his colors. To show you Hoover and all of his colors. To break down the mythology of the FBI. That’s my job. That’s what I feel that my job is.

Ben Hedin, my producer, and I asked the same question when we were doing the film: Are we doing exactly what the FBI had wanted to do when they were initially monitoring King? And we had to come to grips with that. In some ways, we are coming close to that, but we weren’t going to do it the way the FBI was gonna do it. We were going to do it in a more responsible way. To leave something open-ended so you as the viewer can say, “Well, I see what Sam has done, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Maybe I need to hear the tapes, when they’re released in 2027.” That’s what I want an audience to come away with. I don’t want you to be able to say, “Oh my god, look what Sam did, it’s horrible about Martin Luther King.” That’s not the point. The point is to show you that there’s layers of gray in every human being’s life.

One thing you do really well in the film, something that’s really powerful to see specifically onscreen, is show how cinema has been complicit in creating ideas about what the FBI is like, and also what Black people, and Black men in particular, are like. There’s a long history in Hollywood to delve into there.

At the beginning of the edit, I told [editor] Laura Tomaselli that I thought there was some archival material we ought to dig into, some old movie clips. I was very familiar with a lot of these old movies about the FBI because I’m an absolute movie nut. I’ve watched all kinds of movies. So I went home that night and I put together a list of movies that I thought she should get DVDs of so we could find certain things that we thought would be appropriate. I had Walk a Crooked Mile (1984), with Dennis O’Keefe and Louis Hayward. I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) with Frank Lovejoy. Big Jim McLain (1952) with John Wayne. The FBI Story (1959) with Jimmy Stewart. And the seminal TV series I grew up with in the ’60s, The FBI. I was very well aware of those shows. And I said, “We can use those shows to dig into the mythology of the FBI.”

The other thing that’s always important when you’re doing these kinds of archival documentaries is that you want to have a really good archival producer who can dig into that material to find stuff that you hadn’t seen before. So for example, the material that [archival producer Brian Becker] found of Dr. King, with his wife and his kids when they were young, and his parents — I’d never seen that before. When he was able to locate the footage with the FBI, with Scotland Yard having in custody James Earl Ray [who was later convicted of King’s 1968 assassination], I had never seen that footage before. This was eye-opening for me. That’s what always fascinating about documentaries. In some ways, we almost see ourselves as archaeologists, going on a dig, unearthing some new specimen that has some historical resonance. It’s like, wow. After all these years of making films, as an editor, as a director, as a producer, I still can carry the wow factor. I haven’t grown that cynical. [Chuckles]

Watching all these FBI clips in the film, I found myself wondering: Why have we historically been so obsessed with seeing the FBI onscreen as heroes and good guys?

It’s called creating propaganda, very successful propaganda. Here’s a man [J. Edgar Hoover] who was the FBI director for over 40 years. He was a man who basically said, “I need to paint a portrait of this FBI that the American public will buy into.” So you see even in the archival footage or stills, images of J. Edgar Hoover with the Tommy gun, you know that’s not real. That’s all made up because he was trying to make sure that it comes across as the FBI are heroes. He’s with those little boys who say, “I really want to be an FBI agent, like you, Mr. Hoover.” That’s part of developing propaganda.

Listen, Alissa. You’re looking at me, a Black man who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. You know what I wanted to be when I grew up? A cowboy. Why? Because American propaganda has established in the movies and in the books and on television shows that the American cowboy made the West — oh, we killed some Native people, but that’s not the point. We made the West.

It’s about developing propaganda about who you are, and who you want to be. Look at Donald Trump. The reason that the damn man is so successful is that he’s a phenomenal propagandist. He knows how to spin the tale. That’s why he’s got these people in such an uproar. He can spin the tale. He’s a salesman.

And America is about that. Every country has to build themselves up on propaganda. When I grew up, I would watch these movies about the great British Empire. All I could think of was Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and David Niven. And oh, there were some Indian people that they would be suppressing. Oh, really? Propaganda. And it continues to this day. We see it every day.

You could say Hollywood has created an alternate history for us that most people believe. Because images are so powerful.

Because Americans aren’t thinking people. We don’t reflect, we just react. We don’t reflect. It took me a long time to realize, oh, John Wayne was a right-wing, insane human being sometimes. I gotta be mindful of what I was seeing in those films. When you watch a film like The Searchers [the 1956 Western in which Wayne plays a Civil War veteran], to me, John Ford really showed us a racist white man. I don’t know if he understood what he was doing. But that’s what he showed us. That was the truth. America is about creating — not just America, every place is about creating myths. That’s part and parcel of how you get people to follow you.

A group of white men in suits stands near a woman seated at a typewriter.
A scene at the FBI as scene in MLK/FBI.
IFC Films

Another thing you delve into really well in the film is what Hollywood has done, unfortunately, to the image of Black people and Black men in particular, and how that played into how people saw Dr. King and the people he was working with.

It was one of two myths about Black men. They were either scared of their own shadows, like Stepin Fetchit or Willie Best, or they were brutes, Black bucks, who you couldn’t trust around your white women. And if they got near a white woman, you had to destroy them. You had to lynch them, you had to disembowel them. This is about presentation — it’s all about presentation.

So we thought it was important to see that. I remember the first time I saw those images in [the 1915 film] Birth of a Nation, of Black men in Congress with their shoes off, eating watermelon and stuff. And I said, “Whoa, man, what’s [director D.W.] Griffith doing?” He basically is demonizing Black people and Black men, saying, “See, that’s why they can’t be in control in the government. That’s why they can’t be in office, because they are lazy. They are sex addicts.” America is ... [sighs] I’m an American. But man, does it come with a lot of baggage.

Sometimes it seems like filmmakers, in trying to combat those old stereotypes, end up feeding back into them.

Go back and just watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And watch the sequence where Brad Pitt is confronting the actor who plays Bruce Lee. You’re gonna walk away with the idea that Brad Pitt, this white man, could kick Bruce Lee’s ass. Now, whoa. You know, and I know, that Brad Pitt’s character could not have kicked Bruce Lee’s ass. They stopped it before they really get into it, but you’re not going to remember that. You’re going to remember that the first time Bruce Lee throws him against the car, but the second time, he throws Bruce Lee. It’s all in how you present these things.

You’ve got to be able to look at it and understand it. Listen, I walked away from the movie saying, “Man, Brad Pitt is the star of that movie.” But I understood underneath what was going on, what Quentin [Tarantino] was doing. I understood it. But that’s not what usually happens when we watch movies. You watch a movie and you buy into the myth. If the director does it well, you buy into the myth. You want to go out and be Dirty Harry. You want to go out and be Charles Bronson.

Do you think filmmakers have a part to play in helping create better literacy about characters and about history?

[Leans into camera] Spike Lee. [Pause] That says it all, Alissa. Spike Lee. That’s been his agenda ever since I’ve been making these things. That’s what he’s all about.

You see what he did with Da 5 Bloods. Look at what he did. This is what you do, if you’re a filmmaker who really understands the complexity of people. He has these Black men, these Vietnam veterans — they’re not all monolithic. In their experiences as Black men, they all come to the table with different points of view about what it meant to be a soldier and a Black soldier in Vietnam. That’s complexity. That’s looking at people as human beings and seeing that they’re all shades. He doesn’t paint them all one way. They’re all different. That’s what your job should be as a filmmaker, in my opinion.

Why does Hollywood fail on this so often? Is it a failure of imagination?

It’s not a failure of imagination. It’s basically saying, “We want to paint the world a certain way, and that way is the way we want this world to look.” That’s all it is. The people in charge for many years wanted the world to be painted a certain way. That’s what I was raised on. I was raised to see John Wayne as tall in the saddle. I was raised to see Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper as the tall taciturn hero. Movies were supposed to shape certain mythologies, how you are supposed to walk away, thinking about what it meant to be an American. It wasn’t a lack of imagination. It was thought out.

Controlling the narrative.

Exactly. I mean, I do the same thing. I’m trying to control the narrative. Trying to make it a little more complicated.

When we talk about controlling narratives, it seems clear that there are a lot of parallels between how the FBI used the word “communists” back in the 1960s, and the way people use words like “antifa” today — words that start to lose connection to their actual meaning. Do you see those parallels? And is there a way to avoid recreating the mistakes of the past?

Only if you want to. If you don’t want to, you will still recreate them.

We still live in a society where many people have a one-dimensional perspective of what it means to be an American. That’s why what we saw last week reverberates what happened in the ’60s with King, and Hoover, and the FBI, and America in Vietnam. Many Americans have a one-dimensional perspective. It’s all about who we are. We don’t care about anyone else. Unless you’re going to come to some reckoning and understanding that we always lived in a diverse and complex society, but there was a lack of inclusion, you’re gonna still pull out the same tropes.

A line of Black men holding signs that read “I Am a Man” at a protest.
History rhymes with the present.
IFC Films

Back then it was, “King, oh, my God, he is flirting with communism, and they’re gonna help destroy America.” Then we fast forward and someone says, “Oh, Black Lives Matter is flirting with antifa and they’re going to destroy America.” The same tropes are being pulled out all the time. The dog whistles that you heard in the ’60s are the same dog whistles you hear today. There’s a lady on a television show in the film who asks Dr. King, “Don’t you think that peaceful protesters are causing the riots?” Didn’t we hear the same thing about the Black Lives Matter movement? “Aren’t they causing the riots in the cities? Aren’t you people moving too fast?” It’s the same stuff. It’s a part of the fabric of America.

So in your experience, making this film, did you discover anything while making it? Did anything surprise you? What did you learn?

I learned simply — like I learn with every film I do now — that it’s a really complicated world. You have to hunker down as a filmmaker and want to deal with it on all its levels of complexity. That’s what I learned. Was I surprised at what I learned in the film? No, I wasn’t surprised, because to me, it’s America. Last week, I said, I was angry, I was upset when I saw the Capitol building, but I wasn’t surprised.

I’m a Black man in America. This is pretty much the norm. When you’ve seen Black men and women shot down in the streets, when you see a man shot in the back, and there’s no charges against the police officer who shot him, that says it all to me. So I wasn’t surprised by what we did in the filming. To me, my job was to open it up and explore it so people could engage in and grapple with it. That’s my job.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MLK/FBI is opening in limited theaters and on digital on-demand platforms on January 15. See the film’s website for full listings.

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