Retro Review: ‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’

In the United States, February is known as Black History Month. This is the month where we honor and reflect on the struggles and triumphs the African American community has endured while still recognizing the work still needed to be done. As such, in February I like to focus my Retro Reviews on important films in black cinema. While we can look back at the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement and assume Rome was built in a day, so to speak, it was the result of those who were willing to take the risk and fight for equality. Of course when anyone the powers-that-be see as “second class” starts to fight against the status quo they will inevitably be seen as the enemy. One such person who was made an enemy by his own government was Fred Hampton. It culminated in November of 1969 he was killed during a conspiracy-laden raid conducted by the police and FBI. Two years later, documentary filmmaker Howard Alk sought to explore this story in full with his picture The Murder of Fred Hampton.

The movie wisely follows two intertwined narratives, the first is a look at who Fred Hampton was. In the social movement of the 1960’s, activists raged against institutional racism, police brutality and exploitative capitalism. Chicago was an important front in this battle for equality and Hampton was right there at the frontlines. As the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party, Hampton did his work delivering speeches behind a microphone and spearheading community programs with a sharp mind and desire for justice. The second narrative thread is how the system rebutted his efforts through police raids, arrests, and ultimately the conspiracy which led to Fred Hampton’s death.

What helped Howard Alk immensely in the making of the Murder of Fred Hampton is the wealth of archived material available to him. This was made possible by the Black Panther party collaborating with the filmmaker and giving him access to craft his vision and tell this story. This makes the film an invaluable piece of history for contemporary audiences. Not only do we see grand speeches from Fred Hampton and his allies in the fight for social change, but you also get to see the work done behind the scenes. His associates run provide breakfast to kids before they go to school, he talks with community business leaders to build a more equitable economic system. In contrast to this, we also get firsthand footage of the carnage and destruction left when the police killed the young activist in their shady raid. It is interesting that when it comes to detailing the police’s side of the story it is conveyed via news reports by the media. Without beating you over the head this shows the reach the machine held and still holds in pushing its agenda. It is also through these news reports that we see the holes in the “official” account of what happened in the fateful raid which led to Hampton’s murder. We see a district attorney scrambling to account for why the physical evidence contrasts with the official story. It also gives screentime to the smart and tenacious lawyer for the Black Panthers who is not shy about this crime and the impact it has had. As the story raps up we are left with haunting audio of Hampton proclaiming his willingness to give his life in order to advance the cause of justice.

In the past few months the Murder of Fred Hampton was chosen by the Library of Congress to join the National Film Registry due to its historical importance to our nation’s cinematic heritage. Its survival thus far is a credit to the work of the preservationist at UCLA and the Chicago Film Archives who have protected this documentary. As a powerful cinematic time capsule, this documentary is a must-see as it tells a story which is just as relevant now as it was when it was released int 1971.