Sam Pollard: From the projects to the big screen



Peabody Awards | Wikimedia Commons

Dani Heba, Sports Editor

From the projects to successful film director, Sam Pollard is the definition of a success story.  After graduating from Baruch College in 1973, Pollard is teaching this semester’s Sidney Harman Writer-In-Residence class.

“It’s a real honor to be the writer in residence in the 50th year that I graduated from Baruch College, May 1973,” Pollard said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Pollard was born in 1950 in Harlem, New York. His parents were part of the Great Migration of the 1930s and 40s, which saw Black Americans from the South move to the North en masse to escape Jim Crow laws. His father was from Mississippi and his mother, from Georgia.

Pollard, the oldest of his parents’ three children, spent the first four years of his life in East Harlem prior to moving to West Harlem, where he spent his childhood.

In pursuit of his undergraduate degree, Pollard attended Manhattan Community College before transferring to Baruch in 1970, where he would complete a marketing degree in 1973.

However, he would not end up pursuing marketing. Instead, Pollard credits a Baruch advisor for fueling his switch to film, as she persuaded him to sign up for a one-year program that taught him how to edit film two nights per week.

“Just imagine, if I hadn’t transferred from Manhattan Community College, and went to Baruch, my whole life would’ve been different,” Pollard said.

Pollard originally was uninterested in the idea of directing, but had his eye on editing film.

In 1972, he got his first job as an apprentice editor with Victor Kanefsky at Valkhn Films, helping edit the 1973 film “Ganja and Hess.”

Pollard credits this early work experience to helping him find his passion for directing films, which he found through working with Kanefsky.

“I had never felt passionate about anything,” Pollard said. “This is the first thing I felt passionate about: how to make movies.”

However, it took Pollard some time to get to the point of directing film. He edited film from 1972 to 1985 before he got his first opportunity to direct the film “Eyes on the Prize.”

When reflecting on this first-time experience, Pollard recalls being terrified.  However, he stressed the importance of staying locked into his goal.

“It was terrifying,” Pollard said. “But, again, my commitment to wanting to be a director outweighed my insecurity.”

In his editing career, Pollard says there were moments when he felt like an outsider as one of the only Black people in the editing room.

“People would think I was unique because I got into this film editing thing, and there weren’t many Black men or women editing at the moment,” Pollard said. However, he notes that there are a lot more Black people in the industry today.

Prior to teaching at Baruch this semester, Pollard taught at New York University for 27 years before retiring in May 2022. He taught filmmaking, particularly, documentary films.

He noted the balance between teaching and filmmaking required dedicated multi-tasking efforts.

“Juggling balls,” Pollard laughed while discussing the balance. “You had to be mindful of when you needed to be at school and attend your students, you had to be mindful of when you needed to be at a shoot or at the editing room.”

However, Pollard credits his experience with Kanefsky at Valkhn Films—where he remembered balancing as many as three projects at a time.

Pollard’s most recent film “Bill Russell: Legend” documents the life of basketball legend and civil rights leader Bill Russell, who passed away in 2022.

Pollard and his team began working on the film in 2021, one year prior to Russell’s death. The film highlights crucial aspects of Russell’s life, including his early years, his civil rights work and the racial hate he got in Boston and across the U.S.

Russell’s off-the-court presence is one of Pollard’s favorite features about him.

“He saw himself as more than just a basketball player,” Pollard said. “He was a committed activist in the community.”

Despite retiring from teaching, Pollard is staying busy directing. He recently submitted a film to the Tribeca Film Festival called “The League,” which discusses the Negro baseball leagues of the early twentieth century until the 1960s.

Pollard is also finishing up a film he co-directed based on journalist Charles Blow’s book “The Devil You Know.” This film captures the story of Black Americans moving back to the South.

At South by Southwest on March 10-19, Pollard is set to present a film he co-directed called “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes.”

He co-directed a film with his son, editor and director Jason Pollard, about rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard that premieres this summer on A&E.

“When you work in this business, you always have to hustle,” Pollard said.