Posted by Susan Doll on May 13, 2013
Filmmaker Mike Gray died on April 30. I had met and worked with Mike a few years ago when Facets Multi-Media, my former employer, released two of his documentaries onto DVD. Gray has been called an author, journalist, documentarian, screenwriter, television director, and activist—all of which accurately describe his life and career.
Obituaries tended to label him as the scriptwriter for The China Syndrome, the most celebrated title on his filmography. Gray was such a novice to screenwriting when he penned The China Syndrome that he had to teach himself how to structure and format his screenplay. He did so by re-typing the entire script for The African Queen. Though new to writing fiction films, he was not new to researching social issues to support a point of view or position. Gray carefully researched the potential dangers of nuclear power for The China Syndrome, a fictional story about a nuclear accident and a power company’s efforts to keep the truth from the press and public. The film seemed downright prophetic when a few weeks later, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island experienced a major accident, allowing a percentage of radioactivity to leak into the atmosphere. Gray also wrote and directed the 1983 science fiction film Wavelength, which boasted an eclectic cast that included Robert Carradine, Keenan Wynn, and Cherie Currie (of The Runaways). The experience helped Gray land a job writing and directing the sci-fi television series Starman. Later, he produced and directed episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But Hollywood proved to be the least of his interests. Gray was an independent journalist who investigated and wrote about social issues for such magazines as Rolling Stone and GQ. He wrote books about the inadequacies of NASA during the Apollo program, the failure of America’s drug policy, the impact of crack heroin on communities, and the inequities of capital punishment.
I am most familiar with Gray’s earlier career as a nonfiction filmmaker in Chicago. During the 1960s, several Windy City filmmakers originated a down-and-dirty documentary style. A version of cinema verite, the visual style of this loose-knit movement included the use of hand-held camera, long takes, and direct sound, just like their well-known verite counterparts from New York—Richard Leacock, the Maysles, and the Drew Associates. But, there was something more direct, earnest, and even anxious about Chicago’s answer to verite; theirs was a no-nonsense street style fashioned from the use of documentary as social activism. In 1966, Gray cofounded The Film Group, which produced commercials and industrials for major clients. However, as the socio-political scene heated up, the Film Group turned away from advertising to “film the revolution,” as Gray noted. Unsung in the history books, Chicago documentarians, who also included the members of Kartemquin, William Friedkin and Tom Palazzolo, were committed to using film to raise awareness.
And, few Chicago filmmakers could match Gray for getting into the thick of things. He seemed fearless—a trait I admire in any profession. In a short titled Cicero March, Gray and his associate Mike Shea filmed a civil rights march in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Martin Luther King was scheduled to lead the event, but he received so many death threats that he was persuaded to bow out. When a King associate named Robert Lucas made plans to march anyway, Shea decided they should shoot it from the viewpoint of the marchers, a choice made possible only by advancements in equipment during the 1960s. The filmmakers walked among the marchers, recording the raw hatred—along with the bricks and cherry bombs—directed at them by the white citizens of Cicero. When viewers watched the film, they were immersed in the experience from the point of view of the marchers.
Likewise, Gray and the Film Group threw themselves into the fray when tensions surrounding the Democratic National Convention erupted into chaos on August 28, 1968. That morning, Gray and his associates were shooting a commercial with Colonel Harlan Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken. During a break, they heard that a riot was taking place in the park across from the Hilton Hotel. While the Colonel, who had taken a fancy to the receptionist, squired the young lady to lunch, Gray, two producers, and a sound man rushed to Grant Park. As tear gas hung in the air, National Guardsmen blocked the Michigan Avenue bridges, and Chicago police in riot gear maneuvered into position. According to Gray’s account, the police began taking off their badges so they could not be identified.
Gray and his crew watched and recorded the events as they unfolded over the next few days, including the famous scene of police pushing into a crowd of protesters at Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive and brutally beating them with billy clubs. In the footage, it is clear that Gray, who was behind the camera, was forced to run with the crowd as they were chased by the police through the Chicago Loop. Gray, who had been born in Wisconsin and raised in a small town in Indiana, considered himself a “Goldwater Republican” prior to the events surrounding the convention. But, as he wrote in a remembrance for the DVD release of American Revolution 2, “. . . the next 72 hours turned into a college education in political repression. By Friday we were different people.”
The group shot three hours of footage during the convention, obtained footage of the riots from other outlets, and chronicled the activities of community organizer Robert E. Lee III. With the help of Howard Alk, who organized the material into a coherent structure, the Film Group released the film in 1969 as American Revolution 2.
Gray captured history with his footage in AR2, but, with The Murder of Fred Hampton, he was truly caught up in history. While Alk was editing AR2, Gray and his associates were preparing a film about the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, including one of its most charismatic leaders, Fred Hampton. The members of the Film Group had gotten to know Hampton while they chronicled his efforts to help the African Americans of Chicago’s South Side through breakfast programs and other incentives.
In the early morning of December 4, 1969, Gray was notified that Hampton and another Black Panther, Mark Clark, had been killed in an apartment during a police raid, but the police had left the scene unguarded. Panther lawyers urged Gray to shoot footage of the apartment before authorities returned to seal it up. Gray, Howard Alk, and Jim Dennett of The Film Group raced to the crime scene with their camera. They recorded every room of the apartment, including close-ups of the bullet holes.
Later that day, State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan appeared on television to describe the raid as a “shootout.” He claimed his office had knowledge of illegal weapons being stored at Hampton’s apartment, and he ordered the raid by his special detachment of 14 policemen. According to Hanrahan, the police sergeant in charge of the raid halted fire three times to ask the occupants to come out, but they refused, yelling, “Shoot it out.” Over the next few days, rumors hinted of secret evidence that contradicted the official story. The Chicago Tribune supported Hanrahan’s version of events, but The New York Times noted that an inspection of the apartment “did not square with police accounts of a torrid gun battle.” In another press conference, Hanrahan claimed that the shooting began inside the apartment, and police had no choice but to return fire. He supplied photos to the Tribune of bullet holes on the inside of a door to support his version of events. The State’s Attorney famously re-created the Hampton apartment on a set constructed at his office and asked a television news program to film a re-enactment of the raid according to his instructions.
The Film Group obtained a copy of the re-creation for a side-by-side comparison with their footage. Not surprisingly, it did not match. Gray left the country so that Hanrahan or other authorities, including the FBI, could not seize the footage or have him arrested. A deal was brokered with a judge by Panther lawyers in which Gray provided authorities with two copies of the footage but The Film Group retained the negative and the rights. In the meantime, the Chicago Sun-Times proved that Hanrahan’s photos of bullet holes on the inside of a door were actually nail heads, while experts studied Gray’s footage and determined that the shots had come from police weapons on the outside. However, there was no evidence of return fire from the inside by the residents. It was likely that Hampton was shot dead while he was sleeping.
The Film Group’s footage of the Hampton apartment was used as evidence against several police officers, Hanrahan, and two of his assistants. The Justice Department became involved in the case, collecting evidence of manufactured evidence and a cover-up. However, all criminal convictions against the police were dismissed, and no indictments were issued by the Justice Department. In 1971, a special prosecutor appointed by the Chief Judge of the Criminal Courts of Cook County was assigned to investigate. The special prosecutor brought obstruction of justice indictments against Hanrahan, his assistants, and the police raiders, among others. The charges were based on falsification of ballistics, which was partially revealed by Gray’s footage. The Chief Judge refused to file the indictments, so the special prosecutor appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Chief Judge passed the case to another judge, who dropped the charges as part of a quid pro quo deal in which any remaining charges against the surviving Panthers would be dropped.
If your eyes are crossed by the confusing twists and turns in this case, then you can understand how the press and public lost interest in getting to the bottom of the story over the years. The lasting impression left on the public tends to be the initial false version of events spun by authorities in which a violent Black Panther shot it out with police.
Much of the truth was finally revealed in 1973 by a group called “The Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and Police,” though the revelations did not warrant front-page news. In a 272-page report, the commission characterized the Hampton raid as “search and destroy” mission. Around the same time, information about the FBI’s participation in the destruction of the Black Panther Party through its COINTELPRO program was revealed. COINTELPRO was designed to “neutralize and disrupt” black leaders and their organizations. Apparently, the same week that Hampton was killed, raids had been conducted by the FBI around the country on various Panther organizations. In what seems like a plot twist from a Hollywood movie, it was revealed that the Chicago Panthers’ Minister of Security and Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an FBI operative. The month before the raid, he had leaked the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment to the FBI, including the exact location of Fred’s bed.
By this time, Mike Gray had moved to Los Angeles, where he embarked on an admirable if not particularly lucrative career. When I met Gray, he was a kind man who was easy to work with and quick to praise. He was genuinely pleased that his films were receiving recognition through a DVD release. He came to Chicago with Robert E. Lee, the young man from American Revolution 2, to speak about the necessity of community organization in the millennium. In the twilight of their years, the two had not lost their activist’s passion to make the world a better place.
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