The most recent of the British Film Institute’s African Odysseys strand – a series of films and events which explore the African Diaspora on screen – saw a double bill of little-seen works that shed light upon two key figures of the Black Power movement in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of whom were tragically, and almost inevitably murdered by the state.
The Murder of Fred Hampton is a bracing documentary from 1971, made by the Chicago Film Group, about the death of the titular chairman of the local Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Bookended by the dispiriting and utterly shambolic cover up of the murder by Chicago police and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the majority of the film is an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall study of Hampton making speeches, mobilising supporters and preparing for his upcoming court case (Hampton was jailed for allegedly looting an ice-cream van; “I’m big, but I can’t eat 710 ice creams!”), which has a grainy, raw and vital quality entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
The relatively lesser-known Hampton (in comparison to nationally recognised contemporaries such as Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton) was an electrifying, rhythmical orator, and his myriad talents are captured at close range here. Confident, driven and preternaturally assured for his age, Hampton, amazingly, was just 21 years old when he was slain in his sleep in a state-sanctioned 4am raid. Capturing a moment in time, The Murder of Fred Hampton is an essential primer for anybody unfamiliar with the period, the politics or the man, and the intricate explorations of the crime scene and disgraceful cover-up are darkly fascinating.
The Murder of Fred Hampton was accompanied by Death of a Revolutionary, a 30-minute World in Action special from 1972 followed by an illuminating Q&A with its producer Dick Fontaine. A study of the ‘Soledad Brother’ George Jackson, who was assassinated in San Quentin penitentiary, Death… was a meditative piece rather than overtly political, and largely focused on the community and national reaction to his death, interspersed with readings of his poetry and writings. The film was interesting, moving and only slightly marred by a hilariously flat, overly casual voiceover from an unnamed Brit. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to imagine such a poetic, neutral and nuanced study making it onto prime-time television today.
The essential work that the BFI Education department does in promoting a wider cultural experience was underlined and epitomized by a refreshingly mixed crowd occupying a sold-out auditorium. So overscribed was this screening that there was a last-minute (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to have it switched into a larger theatre.
African Odysseys will continue in March with I Heard It Through The Grapevine from 1980 (again by Fontaine) in which the legendary author James Baldwin revisits his past and reappraises the Civil Rights movement.