Very few of the films in my personal video collection were more difficult to get my hands on, or more important to me than The Murder of Fred Hampton. It took years of looking and a lot of money to get the VHS copy of producer Mike Gray's powerful documentary, and honestly it was one of those films I never expected to see on DVD. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Facets was releasing The Murder of Fred Hampton, an important film that offers tremendous insight into one of the most charismatic leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and his brutal murder at the hands of the Chicago police department.
Before I get into the movie, let me give you a little background on Fred Hampton. It is sad that I should have to do this, because in all honesty, Hampton should be known by anyone who has ever studied American history, even at the most remedial level. But history has carelessly overlooked Hampton, and his story, though being crucial to the struggle for equality in the latter part of the 20th century, has been poorly recorded. There are no books about Fred Hampton, and those books that do mention him seldom contain more than a few pages of rudimentary information.
By 1969, the twenty year-old Hampton, leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was one of the most important and influential civil-rights leaders in America. The U.S. government thought he was one of the most dangerous. Under Hampton's leadership, the Chicago-based party had grown into the largest and most powerful of all Panther chapters, operating successful programs such as Serve the People, which included a breakfast program for children, a free health clinic and political education classes. Hampton had come dangerously close to recruiting the Blackstone Rangers into the ranks of the Panthers, which would have politicized the notorious street gang and transformed the party into a small army. And with key leaders of the Black Panthers either dead or in jail, Hampton had managed to move quickly through the ranks, until he was a key figure in the national party. At age 20, Hampton was charismatic, personable and outspoken, all of which, according to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, made him a threat to domestic security.
In the early spring of 1966, producer Mike Gray and director Howard Alk began filming a documentary about Hampton and the Illinois Black Panther Party. The film began as a straightforward portrait of the dynamic leader, and the first half of the documentary consists primarily of rare footage of Hampton speaking at rallies intercut with the activities of the Party. The complex, and to some contradictory nature of the Black Panthers comes through in footage of Panthers serving food at the breakfast program for children, and later, Hampton and others arming themselves for an anticipated police raid. And even though the grainy black-and-white footage is sometimes out of focus or overexposed, from these clips it's easy to see the power Hampton possessed. He was part militant revolutionary, part street philosopher, and part fire-and-brimstone preacher. His commitment to the people comes across as unwavering.
But it's what happened next, when Hampton's life came to an abrupt, tragic ending that turned Gray and Alk's film into an important, revolutionary documentary that served as a powerful weapon in the struggle for justice.
On the morning of Dec. 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police officers broke into Hampton's apartment under the auspices of serving a warrant to confiscate a cache of weapons. The police opened fire on the sleeping occupants of the apartment, and no one was spared from the hail of bullets and indiscriminate beatings the cops served up. Hampton's fiancée, Deborah Johnson, who was eight months pregnant, was dragged, naked, into the street and beaten. Fred Hampton, who was then 21 years old, was shot twice through the head by two police officers at point-blank range; he was killed along with fellow Panther Mark Clark.
News of the raid spread rapidly through the media, with detailed accounts provided by the police and state Attorney General Edward Hanrahan. The story, as it was being reported in much of the mainstream media, painted a picture of honest police officers defending themselves from a vicious attack by rabid Panthers who were armed to the teeth with a small arsenal of weapons. All of the reports and evidence detailing the shoot out was handed directly to the media by Hanrahan, with no real investigative journalism to speak of.
But while publications like the Chicago Tribune were reporting the shoot out as exactly as Hanrahan was describing it, Gray and Alk were uncovering the truth. Just hours after the barrage of bullets that had left Hampton dead was over, Gray and Alk began filming at the scene of the crime, and what they saw and captured on film directly contradicted news reports.
Chicago newspapers published photos of doors and walls, riddled with bullets, along with claims that Panther Party members had fired at police from inside the apartment. The film, however, helped prove that the bullets had been fired by police weapons, from outside the apartment. The police claimed the Panthers had fired the first shots, of the gun battle, as well as numerous other rounds that endangered the lives of the officers. But again, the film proved something else entirely different: only one bullet came from a party member's weapon--the result of an involuntary muscle spasm after Clark was shot. The other 99 shots all came from police guns.
Over the course of time, the film, along with other evidence that would come in to light, the true nature of what happened that night in Chicago was revealed. The Murder of Fred Hampton was instrumental in helping discredit police reports that were intended to cover up a cold-blooded killing. What the film doesn't reveal, because the facts didn't become known until years later, was that Hampton's head of security, William O'Neal, was a paid FBI informant. O'Neal claimed to have drugged Hampton and the others the night of the raid, after providing the police with a detailed map of the apartment. The raid and killings were part of the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program, and Hampton's murder was part of a plan spelled out in a FBI memo that was designed to "prevent the rise of a black 'messiah' who could unite and electrify the militant black antinationalist movement."
As a documentary, The Murder of Fred Hampton serves as a lasting memorial to Hampton's great legacy and tragic killing. Equally important, the film is an example of the power of independent media in providing the truth, when much of the mainstream media simply chooses to recycle the information they are given without digging beneath the surface.
The Murder of Fred Hampton is presented in full frame black and white. The film was originally shot on 16 millimeter film, and the picture quality of that film was spotty at best. The transfer of the film to DVD is good, but the picture is not what some people would consider acceptable. Of course people like that are not likely to watch this film in the first place.
The audio quality of The Murder of Fred Hampton is not what some people would find acceptable. The original audio recording were often not of the best quality, with distortion, drop out and interference--all of which are present on the DVD. But this is not the sort of film you watch for the state of the art audio mix.
Bonus material on The Murder of Fred Hampton is minimal, but still much appreciated. Producer Mike Gray's short documentary Cicero March chronicles a volatile Civil Rights march through a white Illinois community. The violence and hatred captured in this short--which runs less than ten minutes--is a sobering glimpse at a reality of American society that still exists. The Life and Death of Chairman Fred is an invaluable booklet that offers more historical information on Fred Hampton than most of the books that bother to mention him.
Although it has limited appeal to those with an interest in history and the Black Panther Party, The Murder of Fred Hampton is an important film that should be watched. I'm not telling everyone they should buy it, but at the very least take the time to watch it, and then take the time to show it to a friend.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]