Writer and Director: Howard Alk
Stars: Fred Hampton, Rennie Davis, Edward Hanrahan
The Story: What do you do when the subject of the documentary you’re making gets assassinated halfway through? You intercut an exposé of the murderers with the inspiring footage you have of the dead man. The life and death of this charming 21-year-old Black Panther makes for one of the most jaw-dropping and edifying documentaries I’ve ever seen.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is another one that was only recently released on dvd after being extremely hard to find for many years.
Why It’s Great:
- Obviously, this is the document of a crushing blow, but the most shocking thing you realize while watching it is in how many ways the Panthers succeeded in the end, simply by embarrassing the government into adopting their programs, from free breakfast programs to inner-city free clinics.
- There’s a great scene where Hampton meets with two other revolutionaries who want his support. To their surprise, he skeptically dissects their shaky program point-by-point. His criticisms are extremely smart, yet delivered with his usual swaggering humor. In response, they scoff, “The reason we don’t do a lot of talking is because what you say is a foregone conclusion with us.” He cocks a slight smile, and then shoots back “Yeah, well, the reason I do do a lot of talking is that nothing is a foregone conclusion with me.” Now that is a dangerous man.
- As chilling as it is to watch the post-murder scenes, the most fascinating footage is the mock trial Hampton holds for himself as a piece of political agitprop before his death. Amazingly, Hampton gives himself a thoughtful trial filled with real-world give and take, designed to make his audience think, not feel. The actual justice system, on the other hand, shot first and asked no questions later in this case. This movie takes everything you think you know about the Panthers and turns it on its head.
- It’s fascinating to watch a cover-up fall apart. As Hampton himself liked to do, the filmmakers wisely let the killers talk until they impeach themselves. Newsmen at first uncritically report that it’s “a miracle that no policeman was killed” in the “gun battle”. The police give a photo to the papers showing the supposed bullet holes from where they were shot at by the Panthers. When news crews actually go there to confirm, they discover that the black spots in the photo identified as bullet holes are actually nailheads. There was no returning fire. Gradually, it becomes obvious that Hampton was shot in his sleep.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Strange but true, VH1, of all people, recently did a fantastic one-hour overview of the Panther movement as part of the “Lords of the Revolution” series, which they re-run a lot. The oddest moment is when Oscar nominee James Cromwell shows up in a beret, talking about the good old days. It turns out that he was a 18-year-old Connecticut-based Panther supporter once upon a time. Who knew?
How Available Is It?: It finally has a nice dvd from Facets, along with a another short doc by Alk, “Cicero March”.
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