You had to be there. Mike Gray and the Film Group were. They were working out of a studio on Grant Place just off Clark in the summer of 1968. They had the latest handheld cameras from France and they were making good money shooting documentary-style commercials for the top advertising agencies in town. On Wednesday, August 28, says Gray, "we had Colonel Sanders in our studios when we heard there was a riot in Grant Park"--where antiwar demonstrators in town for the Democratic National Convention were squaring off with Chicago police.
They ditched the colonel and took their cameras where the action was. About dusk Gray found himself standing on a fence that ran from a pillar at the corner of Michigan and Balbo to the entrance to the Haymarket Restaurant on the first floor of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Through the viewfinder he looked out at the intersection. "People were sitting down, shouting 'Peace now!' at [vice president] Hubert Humphrey's hotel window. Someone said, 'Look out!' I swung around and saw a phalanx of cops getting out of a bus. They formed up, moved in, and started hitting people indiscriminately. I was looking through the viewfinder, thinking, 'Is this Prague?' I never expected to see that in the United States of America."
The following night the Film Group's accountant, Bill Cottle, was arrested and harassed by police officers in the Hilton basement--harassment that, Gray says, quickly ended when Cottle pulled out his law license.
The convention changed everything for the dozen filmmakers and staff who made up the Film Group. "We'd heard about police brutality," says Gray, "black people complaining about it, but we'd always had the attitude, 'Well, they must have been doing something.' Yeah, they were sitting down."
They returned to making commercials while they continued "filming the revolution" (Gray's words), but it was hard to get enthusiastic about the placement of logos or finding just the right Iowa farm family for an Aunt Jemima spot. Their advertising clients faded away. With help from Second City cofounder Howard Alk they turned 7,000 feet of raw film into American Revolution 2, a feature-length documentary about the convention and its aftermath. It premiered in 1969 at the Playboy Theater and ran several weeks at the 3 Penny.
Alk met Fred Hampton, the 20-year-old leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, and arranged for the Film Group to document their work over the course of the ensuing year. "We knew we had to follow him wherever he went," says Gray. When the call came that he'd been killed the morning of December 4, 1969, Gray rushed over to his west-side apartment. He documented the scene of the shooting, including the condition of the apartment door. The evidence was later used in a successful civil lawsuit--helping to establish that all but one of the shots had been fired by police, from the outside in--and the resulting 1970 film, The Murder of Fred Hampton, was shown at Cannes.
Gray left Chicago soon after Hampton's murder to study screenwriting in California. He wrote the Oscar-nominated 1979 drama The China Syndrome, developed a TV series based on the sci-fi movie Starman, and continued to do documentaries. This Friday the Chicago Film Archives will screen and host a discussion on four films made from Film Group footage from the 60s. The program includes Cicero March, which documents the 1966 open-housing march in Cicero led by Robert Lucas. CFA director Nancy Watrous warns that it contains "vehement" expressions of racism by whites "that I think you wouldn't see in public today." The People's Right to Know: Police vs. Reporters blends Paul Sequeira's photographs of convention demonstrations with his after-the-fact account of how difficult it was to operate as a photojournalist at the time. Black Moderates and Black Militants is a respectful conversation between a Black Panther and a black school principal on how to deal with racist American society and construct something better. Bobby Rush is in the background; the Panther doing the talking now teaches school himself. The program also includes an excerpt from American Revolution 2, in which Black Panther Bobby Lee talks with white members of the Young Patriots from Uptown about how issues of poverty cross racial lines. It runs about 43 minutes total and will be followed by a discussion with Lucas, Lee, and Sequeira moderated by UIC African-American Studies professor Barbara Ransby. Gray will be in the audience.
The Chicago Film Archives took over the Chicago Public Library's collection of 5,000 16-millimeter films in 2003, and later Cottle donated his Film Group prints to the archive. Watrous and her staff obtained grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation for cleaning and restoring them, but the idea for this program came when she learned that Lucas, Lee, and Sequeira were all still around.
Showing old movies is good, but getting their subjects together to talk and reflect is something special. But what? Is it a nostalgia trip? An occasion to bind up old wounds? A continuation of the struggle? Gray, who's heading to San Francisco to interview Robert F. Kennedy Jr. this weekend, doesn't think the struggle ever went away. "You can unplug those headlines from 1969 and use them today," he says. "It's a replay. The issues are the same; some of the people are the same. It's the battle that's been raging in this country since its inception--compassion and generosity alternating with hostility and repression."
Watrous, however, takes a step back, noting that the Film Group's work is valuable because it's cinema verite, with no authoritative voice-over telling you what to think. "One purpose of the Chicago Film Archives is to start with films and open up Chicago history," she says. "We'd like to nuance it and get people looking at the gray areas."