President Woodrow Wilson once described D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation as history written with lightning, which was a great phrase, but better applied to the cinéma vérité movement that dawned 50 years later. Vérité proves its enduring value with American Revolution 2 and The Murder Of Fred Hampton, two little-known documentaries made at the end of the '60s by Chicago's "The Film Group." Both are tangentially about the Illinois chapter of The Black Panther Party, but they're more about the rhetoric of the times and the electricity in the air. They're immersive experiences, preserved from another era.
American Revolution 2 was shot during and immediately after the 1968 Democratic Convention, and it captures the tentative coalition that formed between the Black Panthers and the Young Patriots—the latter an organization of transplanted, impoverished Southern whites galvanized by their own experiences with police brutality. American Revolution 2 lurches awkwardly from the grumblings of Chicago's black community to the Young Patriots' complaints, before concluding with three long town-hall meetings where the Panthers, the Patriots, and the police try to reach an understanding. There's a lot of circular talk throughout about "the people" and "the community," which makes the film a little wearying. But it was probably wearying to be there too, debating endlessly and impotently about "taking action."
The Murder Of Fred Hampton is a more satisfying portrait of activism, however tragic. Hampton was the charismatic chairman of the Illinois BPP, responsible for the local free-breakfast program, and keen to discourage Black Nationalism in favor of what he dubbed "a rainbow coalition." Hampton was killed in a police raid in 1969, and thanks in part to The Film Group's footage of the crime scene, combined with dogged efforts by the Panthers, the incident was adjudged in the court of public opinion—and decades later, in civil court—as a state-sponsored assassination. The last half of The Murder Of Fred Hampton shreds the official statements of Chicago law enforcement, effectively bookending the opening of American Revolution 2. But the first half is all about the life and times of Hampton, as he rouses the rabble and defends the new socialism, while cautiously inspired by the ever-present cameras and microphones.
Key features: Two short films incorporating footage shot around the time of these documentaries.