Emmy Award–winning and Oscar-nominated director, editor, and producer Sam Pollard (’73) has told powerful stories of African American history and lives—from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to photographer Gordon Parks. The inspiration, he says, comes from within: “These stories are part of my DNA.”
Growing up in Harlem during the fight for civil rights and the turbulence of the Vietnam War, Mr. Pollard turned to movies like Parks’s coming-of-age story, The Learning Tree, the songs of Marvin Gaye, and the courage of Dr. King to build a life with purpose. Following an early interest in electrical engineering and enrollment at Borough of Manhattan Community College, he transferred to Baruch, where he majored in marketing and joined the College’s fencing team—but he had yet to find his true passion.
A WNET-sponsored film-training workshop, recommended by a Baruch advisor, awakened something within him. “I didn’t have any experience in film,” Pollard recalls. “I just loved movies.”
He would later work with mentors like acclaimed filmmakers Victor Kanefsky, George Bowers, and Saint Clair Bourne, all of whom instilled confidence in him to tell stories of the figures and events that shaped his life. A director or editor on more than 40 films, Pollard has earned a host of accolades, including a career achievement award in 2020 from the International Documentary Association. Collaborator Spike Lee has called him “a master filmmaker.”
Revealing the complexity of the human experience is a hallmark of Pollard’s work. “Making documentaries is like doing anthropological research to find the whole person, the whole story,” he says. “And when you dig deep, the story is never black and white.”
Notable recent work includes his award-winning 2020 documentary, MLK/FBI, exploring J. Edgar Hoover’s extensive surveillance campaign to discredit Dr. King and the civil rights movement; 2021’s Black Art: In the Absence of Light, examining the work of contemporary visual artists; and his forthcoming Citizen Ashe, an intricate portrait of the activist and tennis champion Arthur Ashe.
As a professor in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Pollard today serves as a mentor for young filmmakers. “One thing I learned from Saint [Clair Bourne] is it’s important to tell the stories,” he explains. “So it’s important for me to be involved, to keep giving back.”