Registering the Registry 2021: The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we broach an uglier side of the latter-day Civil Rights Movement once again to examine one of its young leaders, his influence on his Chicago community, and how he was cut down in his prime for his dangerous ideas of caring for your fellow man and fighting back when brutalized. From 1971, it’s The Murder of Fred Hampton. No use in tarrying; on with the story.

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In 1968, Howard Alk and Mike Gray of Chicago commercial production company The Film Group set out to document that year’s Democratic National Convention, now historically noted for immense strife on the convention floor owing to upheaval within the party regarding policy around the Vietnam War; Mayor RJ Daley’s jackbooted direction of police security against the press and his opponents within the party; and large-scale days-long clashes between protesting activists led by the countercultural Youth International Party and the city’s police force. Only the last of these receives significant screentime in their final product, American Revolution 2, and only for a relatively brief portion of the film, for their time filming protests and police brutality turned them on to something more interesting and far more radical than an unprecedented mass revolt at a major political convention. From the stew of chaos in late 60s Chicago, Alk and Gray came into contact with the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, by this time grown beyond their roots as a police policing organization in Oakland to post chapters in major cities nationwide, and at this point transitioning their goals from black liberation to an all-encompassing socialist revolutionary movement. From late ’68 to early ‘69, the Illinois chapter was engaged in the early steps of forming their Rainbow Coalition, an alliance between the Black Panthers, the white southern Young Patriots, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords towards an end of raising awareness around the common class indignities suffered by Chicago citizenry across all racial boundaries.

As such, the majority of American Revolution 2 builds out from the conflict of the Democratic Convention to show this alliance in transition from early argument-driven open meetings to a decidedly united front engaged in frank discussion and direct activism around their grievances. Presented in a narrationless vérité style, the picture is principally concerned with interviews from the common folk on the street, handheld footage of meetings and discussions amongst the organizers and their members, capturing the shift as understanding is reached and agreements coalesce. For an extended finale, Alk and Gray present a meeting between the Coalition and a representative from Chicago PD, who initially seems reasonable and compliant, even sympathetic towards the group’s grievances, but retreats to empty promises and defense of indefensible actions too often to prove trustworthy, a sentiment echoed in an afterward meeting during the final minutes. Without a word’s guidance, the point is clear: conventional mainstream leadership and law enforcement have failed working class and lower Americans, a proudly socialist movement tuned into the bullshit of traditionally hostile race relations has emerged, and they are organizing to effects as potentially impactful as the original colonies’ revolt against the British Empire. Of course, the film’s final minutes show how even a group so seemingly strong and united as this is forever prone to resuming intragroup bickering, which heavily implies revolution is not at all easy — if you’re gonna get anywhere, you need someone who can fire the people while staying the course.

Thus, across 1969, Alk and Gray followed and filmed the main organizer behind the Rainbow Coalition to feature in a documentary all his own: Fred Hampton. A local resident engaged in activism since his early teens, Hampton had grown disillusioned with the NAACP’s gradual dripfeed approach to civil rights and thrown in with the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program after tuning into the writing and works of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong (then-common ideological misstep born from lacking widespread knowledge about the Great Leap Forward amongst the general public). He joined the party in late ‘68, and by early ’69 he was chairman of the Illinois chapter. The reason for this rapid advancement is crystal clear from the moment he appears onscreen in Alk and Gray’s second feature documentary: Hampton was a loud, fierce, passionate speaker, one who could command a crowd’s attention within a few sentences and keep them glued for an entire speech as he espoused the virtues of being a revolutionary, being willing to meet brutality with organization and activism and retaliation if necessary, being willing to die for your cause knowing you have done enough to inspire others to follow your example. This hardly implies, however, the unfortunately popular image of a reverse-racist thug common to late 20th-century retrospective portrayals on Panthers. The footage also shows Hampton as someone well-aware of the fire in his words and firm in his resolve to not accept any revolutionary who has not read and internalized their theory to demonstrable satisfaction, someone who saw the party’s free breakfast programs for poor children and free medical clinics for residents discriminated by the healthcare industry as paramount to the party’s success as much for their open access to people who needed to hear socialist rhetoric as their provisions toward the common good. Here was a man who did not shy away from calling the police what they were — murderous thugs who ripped apart minority communities and enjoyed protection under the law without being bound by it as they excessively bound those who benefitted no protection — and did not shrink from calling for reclaimative violence where necessary, but also took exhaustive steps to ensure his people knew there were many avenues for work in the socialist mode before violence became necessary.

The first half of the picture is consistently marked by the difficulties inherent to documenting events that happen far from the documentary’s camera. During his rise to prominence in ’69, Hampton was under investigation and later prosecution on trumped-up charges for stealing hundreds of ice cream bars, a charge he respected far enough to host and film mock trials playing his own prosecutor, interviewing colleagues and “witnesses” as pretense for expounding on the absurdity of the whole thing and formalizing his rhetoric about the necessity of fighting the capitalist police state with the water of socialism rather than the fire of black capitalism. Resultantly, when Hampton is declared guilty and sent behind bars for several months, the film experiences a brief absence of his presence, during which time the police raid Panther headquarters and burn it to the ground. For their part, Alk and Gray leverage this major event occurred far from their cameras by pairing footage from inside the ruined husk of a building with a Panther anti-police chant version of “Louie, Louie” in support of Hampton’s release. Even in a moment of defeat, defiance persists, and in short order Hampton is out on parole, as effective and radical in word and deed as ever. As with The Film Group’s previous work, the vérité footage-only approach does not allow direct commentary, yet a viewer can readily grok intent from assembly alone: Hampton and the Panthers’ ideology towards a socialist revolution have weight and power amongst those who care to hear them, and because the absolute greatest threat to this ideology is silencing by the monied and powerful, it becomes essential for those truly invested in betterment through revolution to remain loud, vigilant, and engaged. Hampton says as much when he openly acknowledges he’ll most likely die in service of his cause while speaking on the importance of remaining focused on working for the people.

Then, across a cut, in the small hours of December 4th, 1969, aged only twenty-one, Fred Hampton was murdered by the police.

Police removing Hampton’s body from his apartment.

At first, the back forty minutes of The Murder of Fred Hampton follows with the confusion of the immediate moment, presenting media reports and press releases relating the initial official story that a police raid on Hampton’s apartment turned violent when demands for entry were met with gunfire, and commands to ceasefire were met with further assault, necessitating hailfire retaliation. Police photography and statements published in the conservatively popular Chicago Tribune seem to strengthen these allegations as they show what appear to be exit holes through the walls and door to Hampton’s room. This story does not hold water long, though, for the police neglected to adequately seal the apartment as a crime scene, and Panthers accompanied by Alk and Gray were able to examine the place in an investigation of their own. Gradually, the coroner’s inquest (huh, familiar) and Panther analysis both poke numerous holes in the police’s story regarding how they announced their entry, what probable cause motivated their warrant, exactly where and when the bullet holes perforating the apartment originated. Incidents mentioned in the police report like a shotgun blast straight out the door lack any evidence of pellets striking the hallway wall or bloodsplatter from an intercepting body, while the holes so central to corroborating the police report are revealed as nail holes in the doorframe, some with nailheads still within, some not present prior to the shooting and likely staged by the police themselves. As doubt around the police story rises and certainty in the truth coalesces, Alk and Gray mirror Hampton’s mock trials by showing a police-backed reproduction walkthrough the crime intercut with footage of the actual site exposing their lies, and integrate interviews from Panthers who were in the apartment with Hampton at the time telling of their own experiences, how they were manhandled and fired upon in the midst of calls for ceasefire to protect the vulnerable. Notably, this includes testimony from Hampton’s partner Akua Njeri (then Deborah Johnson), holding their infant son as she tells of trying to rouse Hampton from his sleep, shielding him from bullets despite being pregnant at the time, being pulled out of the room, and hearing several officers wryly note he should make it before emptying several rounds directly into his skull.

Though the sudden murder of their central subject necessitates Alk and Gray introduce some short title cards and brief narration at points to smooth understanding of what’s going on and how new footage relates to previously shown material, they remain largely committed to the vérité approach for the majority of this passage, even framing their specially conducted interviews by crosscutting with on-the-ground footage and clips drawn from the local media. There is only one point when a subject directly addresses the audience through the camera without the implied distance of a third-party behind the lens, at the very very end, when attorney Skip Andrew reads from the final official report detailing conclusions about Hampton’s death. Per his reading, the police assaulted Hampton’s apartment without warning, violating numerous points of their warrant-enforcement protocol while indiscriminately firing ninety-nine shots across the duration of the raid; only one bullet hole out of the one hundred documented at the scene could possibly have originated from a Panther weapon, and it was fired by door security Mark Clark, as a death reflex upon being shot through the heart from behind a closed door. The sudden and unnecessary display of brutality and use of terrorizing tactics, in combination with the lack of adequately defensible cause for the raid and the lack of follow-up on charges filed against the Panthers arrested after the shooting, makes it blindingly clear the police were there for the sole intent of assassination. Despite this, the cold-blooded certainty Chicago’s police force deliberately murdered Fred Hampton, the report concludes there was not adequate evidence to hold any officers accountable for wrongdoing.

Of course, there are a few important matters The Murder of Fred Hampton leaves unaddressed, largely because its 1971 release meant information gleamed from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI’s break-in was not widely distributed or analyzed just yet. In blunt: while the Black Panther Party was subject to COINTELPRO monitoring and interference like any other viewed-as-subversive leftist organization from the mid-50s to the early-70s, Fred Hampton in specific was targeted for the effectiveness of his party’s social programs, his work building of the Rainbow Coalition, and Director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal fears Hampton may prove a “black messiah” capable of overthrowing the US government entire. His final years were marked by regular FBI attempts to discredit him through the dissemination of disinformation disguised as Panther literature, federally-backed rumors of poison distributed through the breakfast programs and health clinics, encouragement of aimless violence and splintering within the Party ranks, and fueling media slander surrounding his arrest and stated goals. When it became clear the sum total of these efforts were still not enough to destroy Hampton’s reputation or the Panthers’ widespread sway even as Hampton lost his parole case and was slated for reincarceration, teenage FBI informant and Panther infiltrator William O’Neal was tasked with slipping Hampton secobarbital the night before the raid, to ensure he could not wake and flee when the police arrived to murder him. This killing was not only an example of corruption within a local police department or mayor’s office, not merely a manifestation of the underpulse of systemic racism within city-level governance and law enforcement. The murder of Fred Hampton represents an example of a citizen assassinated by the highest powers of his nation in the context of a program whose tenants and practices continue to the modern day despite its formal dissolution on COINTELPRO’s public discovery, for no better reason than fear he could upend the status quo and achieve a better life for his fellow man. If there’s any doubt as to the voracity of this assessment, consider Hoover came to regard Hampton as an even greater threat after his informants told him they could only find evidence of the Panthers providing free breakfast for poor children.

Taken in combination with American Revolution 2, The Murder of Fred Hampton and the attendant history around both documentaries serve to illustrate not only the rot in the upper echelons of American politics and the consequent revolt such rot engenders, but the pressing need for immediate and ongoing action lest it progress any further.

We run somewhat shorter than usual this week both because I want to find a balance between this series’ early shorter-spoken days and the longer rambles that have defined articles of late, and because I feel a simple, direct relation of the story around Fred Hampton and his murder does the man’s life best justice. It must be understood, regardless Hoover’s paranoia or the titling of a recent biopic (whose release likely guaranteed Murder a place in the Registry), this was not a messiah, nor a man inherently greater than any other owing to some intrinsic property. This was a man who saw the ills of his time, ills present across centuries and persistent to our time; a man who read and listened and learned and geared himself towards a revolutionary sea change with caution and consideration tempering rightful and blazing anger; a man who put his community first, who regarded his community as all who suffered to grease the wheels of capitalism and white supremacy. A man who, because he was remarkable in word and deed despite being only a man from a common background, was regarded as a threat to monied interests and gunned down in his sleep by officers who laughed and smiled for the camera as they took his corpse away, officers acting under order from a powerful federal organization. You need to know there was a flesh and blood body here, you need to know he was struggling in the right direction, and you need to know he died because he was right.

As I draft and edit this piece, we see the long-term effects of Hoover and the Nixon administration’s success in suppressing the numerous revolutionary leftist movements that sprang up across America fifty years ago. There was not radical change when the monied classes had less influence over the media and government because the leaders were murdered, the membership demonized, the goals misrepresented as evil and unamerican, and now we reach a point when decades of moderate line-toeing has granted true believers a victory in a Supreme Court justice actively calling for rollbacks on rights not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as initially drafted. We run shorter this week because frankly I am frightened, knowing radical change must come and is perhaps inevitable as the powerful continue stress testing the disenfranchised beyond a breaking point, but finding myself averse to identifying what it might entitle, for I fear it must involve bloodshed. As Hampton himself says in a speech delivered over the closing roll, one can only properly honor his memory if they’re willing to go out and fight for the people’s cause, else he doesn’t want remembrance. I am not the revolutionary Fred Hampton championed. I’m too cowardly to advocate violent resistance even as the American experiment comes crumbling down, and so all I can do is encourage my readership learn their history, continue contribution to community guarding and harm reduction causes wherever possible, and seek out educated voices who might provide a definite path forward.

There is, however, one point I’d like to highlight before we break for the week, one point I think worth taking away from this experience above all others: when Fred Hampton finishes delivering his final speech and the soundtrack fades to Panther chants, the text accompanying his words is capped by his name, and his date of birth, August 30th, 1948. It lists no date of death.

“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution. You might run a liberator like Eldridge Cleaver out the country, but you can’t run liberation out the country. You might murder a freedom fighter like Bobby Hutton, but you can’t murder freedom — and if you do, you’ll come up with answers that don’t answer, explanations that don’t explain, and conclusions that don’t conclude.”

May this idea ever ring true, and may Fred Hampton live on in the people’s deeds. Stay vigilant and stay strong, whoever and wherever you are.

***

Of course, the demonic entity in a grand globe-spanning bottle we call the modern algorithmically-driven internet demands calls for engagement to pay any dividends, and we’re talking a socialist revolutionary who put the people first and foremost anyhow, so do let me know what you think in the comments. Of Fred Hampton, the documentary on his murder, the recent biopic, the real-time erosion of the United States, anything you like. Just so long as you check back in two weeks when we do our next film. In a time when The Usual Suspects have cast “degenerate” as a slur upon yet another disadvantaged minority class, we look back to when John Waters and Divine made degeneracy an art unto itself with 1972’s outrageous and abject cult object Pink Flamingos! Big surprise, nobody’s got this for legal sale or stream in a digital format just now, so either get a physical copy or do the yar-har thing (though if you do, be sure to consider picking up Criterion’s new BluRay release when it drops in June). See you then!

Gargus may also be found on Letterboxd, tumblr, twitter, ko-fi.

Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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