The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
NEW YORK - After the second screening of "The Murder of Fred Hampton" at the Museum of Modern Art, Mike Gray was sitting at the bar of the Chelsea Hotel and trying to decide how to take New York by storm. The museum screenings have generated a lot of enthusiasm and favorable reviews, but it costs $30,000 minimum to open a movie in New York and advertise it properly.
One alternative is to book it for midnight screenings at an art house and wait for it to find an audience. That has worked for several films in New York but - well, Gray hasn't made up his mind.
In a way, it's almost easier to make a film than to release it effectively. Gray thinks he made a mistake when he booked "The Murder of Fred Hampton" at Chicago's Three Penny Cinema last May before releasing it nationally.
"Chicago is a little funny about Chicago-made films," he said. "It's the Second City thing. Even with the good reviews we got, Chicagoans were reluctant to take a chance. I guess maybe they thought it would be amateurish footage, or a lot of murky rhetoric recorded so badly you couldn't understand it.
"I've learned my lesson. When you make a film in Chicago, you've got to take it out of Chicago, get recognition somewhere else, and then bring it back in. If a little New York rubs off on a Chicago film, somehow that makes the film real for Chicagoans."
Since the unsuccessful Chicago booking, "The Murder of Fred Hampton" has been well received everywhere it's gone. It was a hit on the European festival circuit, playing Cannes, Berlin, Stratford, Pessaro, Leipzig and Mannheim no less. It's set for the Los Angeles Film Festival in November.
Howard Auk, who is Gray's partner and edited the film, has his own theory about the coolness of Chicago audiences toward it.
"If Fred Hampton had spoken Greek," he said, "the movie would still be running.
People like to feel righteous. But they like to feel righteous about other people. They don't like to bring it home. It is possible to draw the conclusion that Fred Hampton's death was a case of state murder. Some people in Chicago don't want to draw that conclusion because then they'd have to share responsibility for doing something about it.
"When the grand jury was about to return indictments last spring, we thought that would be the right time to open the movie in Chicago. Well, it wasn't. For one thing, we didn't know how long the indictments would be suppressed. But there was something else. A lot of people thought the indictments would take care of everything. That the Fred Hampton case would have a happy ending, like 'Z.' As if you could trade two deaths for one political career and come out even."
In the meantime, there is the matter of opening the film for national distribution. Gray is not discouraged. He and his film were on the David Frost Show a couple of weeks ago, and Fred Hampton's moving speech in the film ("I want to die getting high off the people") was reprinted on the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times.
There is just the problem of how to open a film in New York. Because once it opens here, it is really a film, you see, and not just something made in Chicago. That is kind of a miserable conclusion to draw, but Gray thinks it is inescapable.
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