Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It was common on college campuses in 1971 and '72 to see showings of 'revolutionary' films, mostly documentaries advocating political positions far to the left of center. The Argentinian La hora de los hornos, about neocolonialism and oppression in Argentina, was shown constantly even though it was banned in its home country for several more years. One of the best- received advocacy docus was The Murder of Fred Hampton, a movie begun in 1969 to show the community work of the Illinois Black Panther Party. When Hampton was killed in a "police raid" on December 4, the film became a prime record of an incident that has gone down in history as an officially sanctioned murder.
The docu is balanced in that it shows both the rhetoric-spouting Black Panthers and the brazenly cocky police officials for what they were. By avoiding an imposed commentary Howard Alk's film forces us to draw our own conclusions. The charismatic Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush hold weekly meetings for their grass roots militant association, and attend indoctrination breakfasts to give the children of their community a sense of black pride, etc. The breakfast pep talks ("the milk's good for your teeth, man") appear to be staged for the camera, but everything the Panthers do in public exhibits a high degree of PR calculation.
The speeches for adult audiences are less compelling. Hampton and his close associate Rush harangue their congregation-like meetings with militant slogans and calls to organize against the oppression of the white corporate culture. They insist that they're not simply anti-white but against oppressors of all races. Their rhetoric advocates armed resistance as the means to overthrow governmental authority. All cops are pigs, whether they're black or white. One speaker likes to punctuate his arguments with the verbal image of a cop with his brains blown out. The Panthers are arguably defending their communities against police violence, but their call-to-arms mentality and Communist ideology label them as dangerous militants. The general public was shocked by the sight on TV of gun-toting rebels chanting "Death to the Oppressor," images that put the racial issue on an "Us or Them" basis.
The Panthers and especially Fred Hampton are better served by praise from knowledgeable outsiders. Anti-war activist Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago Seven, indicates that the fiery speeches and rebel posing were only a part of the Panther's activities. They take a meeting with a smaller, unaligned black pride organization which advocates a much more Marxist posture. The Panthers lean more toward practical matters, like forming a Co-op credit union.
Then comes the actual killing. According to the Illinois State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the police were following a tip about a 'weapons depot', an interesting choice of words considering that they claimed they didn't know that Panthers were involved. They claim that they announced themselves and returned fire only when confronted by a barrage of shotgun, rifle and pistol shots from inside the apartment. Hampton was supposedly killed reaching for two weapons, and Hanrahan thanks God that no police were injured.
Revelations released years later (and not presented in The Murder of Fred Hampton) pretty much demolished the police account of the killing. The raid was not conducted by normal police but by a special squad coordinated with COINTELPRO, a secret FBI squad convened by J. Edgar Hoover to 'neutralize' dangerous dissidents and radicals. Paid informer William O'Neal tipped the raiders and identified where Hampton slept. O'Neal drank with the tenants and left after slipping Hampton a soporific.
Since the raid was not carried out by regular police, the crime scene was not secured. That allowed the Panthers (and Alk) to examine the rooms and film evidence refuting the police claim that they were met with heavy armed resistance. In addition, witnesses in the apartment (including Hampton's pregnant girlfriend) are consistent in their testimony that the raiders shot Hampton, examined what they'd done, and then fired two additional shots into his head. "Now he's good and dead," one said.
The Panthers and their attorneys lace their news interviews with political theater, presenting their Chairman Hampton as yet another martyr to the revolution. Bobby Rush announces that the cops boasted that he was the next target, a claim bolstered by photos of grinning police at the crime scene. But the film presents plenty of hard evidence countering Hanrahan's claim of a gun battle. Only one tenant fired a shot, and the apartment walls show no trace of the multiple shotgun blasts supposedly fired by the Panthers. Faced with these contradictions, Hanrahan becomes more rigid in his interviews, reiterating the same statements about a crime scene he never personally visited. After decades of watching politicians and white-collar criminals evading questions on television, Hanrahan does not come off as credible.
The docu winds down with contradictory conclusions. The Panthers hold a mock trial to publicize the facts of the killing, because they're convinced that the official inquest will be rigged. Indeed, the police are later exonerated for lack of evidence. The Murder of Fred Hampton does not insist on one conclusion, and instead allows the footage speak for itself. Later revelations, however, do uphold the Panthers' claim that the killing was a premeditated police murder.
Facets Video's DVD of The Murder of Fred Hampton is an okay transfer of a very roughly filmed show. The flat B&W feature looks pretty good considering that many scenes are (understandably) poorly lit. Only a few inter-titles are added to identify people, places and dates, so the movie is best appreciated as a study tool in conjunction with written accounts of the events in question.
The lack of a subtitle option also causes problems, as a lot of the audio outside of newsreel situations is boomy and indistinct. Some of it is barely on microphone, making many speeches difficult to fully understand. Facets' one extra is a short film about an earlier anti-racism demonstration called Cicero March made by the same talent. White thugs (including women) follow the black marchers and provoke them with taunts and obscenities. When the violence breaks out, it is all between the riot police and the whites.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Murder of Fred Hampton rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Fair+ mostly due to the way it was filmed
Sound: Fair not as clear as it should be
Supplements: Cicero March, a short film of an earlier Civil Rights march.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 30, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson