The Murder of Fred Hampton

DVD Watch

The Murder of Fred Hampton

Facets, $24.95

"Before you go to bed tonight, say 'I am a revolutionary.' Make that your last words, in case you don't wake up. Then somebody might believe it if you end up in the – what do you call it? The revolutionary happy hunting ground. Say that, 'I am a revolutionary.'"

The rapt congregation repeats Fred Hampton's benediction, and the film smash cuts to an image of the blood-soaked mattress where Hampton lay when Chicago Police shot their way into his home and fired upon this 21-year-old deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois. Title notwithstanding, the intimations of mortality in this last of his speeches in the film still can't blunt the shock of Fred Hampton's murder in this rarely seen 1971 documentary by director Howard Alk and producer Mike Gray.

The blow derives as much from how the film was made as from any aesthetic or rhetorical devices. Commenced in 1966 by Alk and Gray as a portrait of this smart and immensely charismatic young leader, only upon the sudden death of their subject did it become an investigative and historical document of a political hit. Already intimate with the party and its members, the filmmakers were admitted to the crime scene mere hours after the ambush.

For a riveting, if seemingly shapeless, hour, the film simply follows Hampton's activities as an orator and community activist, covering the Panthers' community clinic and Free Breakfast for Children program; Hampton's lucid, forthright explanations of the party's Marxist principles; and preparation for armed conflict with the police, all with the same unblinking eye and unintimidated ear. In refusing to shy away from Hampton's or the Black Panthers' more controversial or embarrassing behaviors or qualities – the posters of Mao decorating headquarters, the brandishing of firearms, and regular peppering of speeches with "up against the wall, motherfucker!" or words to that effect – the filmmakers stir sympathy for this charming, compassionate, and forceful man, without losing sight of how he and the movement he was part of justifiably scared the living shit out of authorities, the general public, and their own ostensible supporters.

After seeing the first half, it can come as no surprise that those in power would want the man dead, but after going on to witness political theatre, evidence of corruption, and outright lying from the Chicago Police and the FBI, the complex appraisal shifts disturbingly. A federal grand jury concluded that only one out of 100 shots fired in the ambush could have come from a Black Panther weapon. Each side had clearly upped the ante for the other, but one has to ask who ultimately needed armed protection more: the police and the people of Chicago or Fred Hampton?

Also Out Now

American Revolution 2 (Facets, 24.95): Directed by The Murder of Fred Hampton producer Gray, it follows the actions, riots, and general racial and political unrest in the wake of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

The Green Berets (Warner Home Video, $12.98): For folks in search of a document of those times from a right-wing perspective, the John Wayne centenary justifies a new edition of his pro-Vietnam cult classic. If one gets distressed thinking how lefties have traded down from the vérité time capsules of filmmakers like Alk and Gray to Michael Moore screeds and PowerPoint presentations, consider that right-wingers have gone from the Duke to Larry the Cable Guy in Delta Farce.

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The Murder of Fred Hampton, Howard Alk, Mike Gray, Facets, American Revolution 2, The Green Berets

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