Most film buffs probably don't know the name Mike Gray. But the Chicago-based filmmaker has proved to be a versatile force, wearing many hats behind and away from the camera. He penned the great China Syndrome, directed Wavelength, produced 13 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and was even second A.D. on The Fugitive. But far from being another figure who flittered around the film industry for decades taking one odd job after another, Gray is primarily a political activist and, from 1969 to 1971, was on the cutting edge of the cinéma vérité movement with his American Revolution 2 (which he directed) and The Murder of Fred Hampton (which he shot and produced). Both documentaries deal with police brutality and black repression in '60s Illinois, and neither has aged a day. We need only to look back to November of last year, when Queens police officers fired 50 bullets at an unarmed African-American man as he was leaving his bachelor party, to acknowledge that the utopia so naively envisioned by the Black Panthers is a long way off.
American Revolution 2 (so refreshing to see a film with a numeral in the title that isn't a sequel), the first of the two movies, uses the race riots following the 1968 Democratic National Convention, spearheaded by activist comedian Dick Gregory, to open a dialogue about race, class and standing up to the Man. A literal dialogue, in this case. While the opening minutes, set within the tumult of the riot, feature amazing reportage from the front lines of the race war, most of the movie is comprised of a series of filmed rallies in which groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Patriots uplift crowds of progressives with calls for change. The energy and rage in these discussions is infectious and never boring, and concludes with a long-awaited exchange with a white police chief who shows surprising candor and lack of spin in conceding his officers' racism.
Doing more justice than any fictive biopic could, The Murder of Fred Hampton is the grandest feather in Gray's cap, an extraordinary use of film as investigative report. What began as a documentary account of the titular Illinois Black Panther leader shifts to a CSI-like dissection of a notorious homicide when the doc's subject is killed in a police raid. So we get half a movie detailing the young (he was only 21 when he died) chairman's charismatic mystique and enormous appeal, and half a movie cementing his tragic martyrdom post-death. Evidence from the crime scene and interviews with eyewitnesses glaringly conflict with the saintly police testimony, which states the officers only fired after being fired upon. Gray weaves the two sides of the argument together beautifully, understanding the political context as more than just an isolated raid but as part of the ongoing struggle between perceived fascism and socialism.
The audio quality on these Facets discs is less than could be desired, but for the period and the technology of the time, the restoration is acceptable. Both movies provide a candid, fly-on-the-wall look at a specific, well, facet of the ongoing race war, eloquently and timelessly.