More useful as a historical artifact than as a proper cinematic experience, politically charged documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton is two movies awkwardly fused together. When production began, director Howard Alk and his collaborators intended to make a piece about the Black Panther Party, with a focus on Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter. Whether Alk’s team envisioned the final result as balanced reportage or one-sided propaganda became irrelevant when, partway through filming, Hampton was killed during a police raid. Adapting to changed circumstances, the documentarians began compiling evidence and testimony relating to Hampton’s death, eventually forming the opinion that Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department. The final film begins with a walk-through of the crime scene, then proceeds through nearly an hour of footage from the first version of the production before shifting to an investigation into Hampton’s death. To call this editing approach awkward requires great understatement. One gets the sense that Alk either failed to collect sufficient footage to make a legitimate film about Hampton’s death, or that he simply lacked the will to reconfigure material he’d already filmed and/or edited.
Whatever the case, The Murder of Fred Hampton is not especially compelling or persuasive as an activist expression, even though the simple facts of the case imply the Chicago PD used excessive force. Where The Murder of Fred Hampton has utility, however, is in documenting the anger and purpose and vitality of the Panthers during their period of greatest political currency. More specifically, the picture is a monument to Hampton’s efficacy as a messenger, the very strength that, according to the filmmakers’ thesis, made him a target for political opponents. Watching Hampton rap about education and ideology reveals the complexity of his political thought, making it impossible to dismiss him—and, by extension, the Panthers—as mere violent radicals. Like so many counterculture groups that took root during the Vietnam era, the Panthers asked important questions about American values in the age of the military-industrial complex. Unlike other groups, they took the racial aspects of such conversations seriously, arguing that toppling the white majority from power was the only way to deliver equality for minorities. Seen in this light, it’s easy for sympathetic viewers to accept this documentary’s underlying premise, that Hampton was eliminated as part of a systematic effort to snuff a revolutionary movement with the potential to change the structure of American society.
The Murder of Fred Hampton: FUNKY