Stream these three great documentaries
By Ben Kenigsberg
The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ (1971)
Stream it on Max and Vimeo.
The Film Group, the Chicago production company that made “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” began this documentary before Hampton, the chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was killed in a police raid on his apartment in December 1969.
Law enforcement’s narrative of his death was quickly contested. As Sarah Bahr explained in The New York Times in 2021 for the release of the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah,” police initially claimed they had fired in self-defense, but ballistics experts found only one shot (out of more than 80) that they attributed to the Panthers. Despite protracted legal proceedings, no one was ever convicted of the killings of Hampton and another Black Panther, Mark Clark, who died there that morning, although the federal, city and county governments agreed to pay a $1.85 million settlement in 1982.
Because of the shift in course, “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” directed by an uncredited Howard Alk (who a decade earlier had been one of the original founders of The Second City), necessarily has a raw and bifurcated feel. It begins with Hampton’s death before flashing back to show him alive, making speeches, holding meetings, and in an electrifying section, acting as his own defense counsel in court while arguing that he is not guilty of robbing an ice cream truck. The film also features lengthy speeches from other Black Panthers, including Bobby Seale (of the Chicago Eight) and future congressman Bobby L. Rush.
But “The Murder of Fred Hampton” takes an abrupt turn around the 50-minute mark, cutting from a call-and-response speech by Hampton to a moment of total silence as it returns to the scene of Hampton’s death. Much of what follows alternates between the police account of events and the Panthers’ contradictory evidence. Although the film is unabashedly pro-Hampton, the extensive analysis of bullet trajectories is portrayed as quite clearly giving the lie to law enforcement’s story.
If all you know of Hampton comes from “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which dramatized the lead-up to his death, this recounting, which caught events as they happened, is essential.
Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV and Google Play.
A flashpoint in Israel, Alon Schwartz’s documentary offers a sort of second chance for its central commentator, Teddy Katz. As a graduate student more than two decades ago, Katz wrote a thesis suggesting that, in 1948, after the Israeli Army had captured the Palestinian village of Tantura, it killed scores of Palestinians. This wasn’t merely a case of war being brutal. The implication was that the army had committed a massacre.
The thesis ignited a controversy at the time. Katz was sued and signed a statement disavowing his work, although in a contemporary interview in the movie, he says that releasing the apology, which he tried to retract, was the biggest mistake he ever made. According to the film, Katz was in effect prevented from having an academic career. But Schwartz plays excerpts from the interviews that Katz conducted. He also includes fresh interviews with Israeli former soldiers and looks at other potential evidence, such as aerial photographs of Tantura over time that may or may not reveal the location of a mass grave.
“Tantura” is pretty clear on what it believes happened in 1948, but it is also a fascinating film about how history is written. One of Katz’s naysayers, Yoav Gelber, a historian at the University of Haifa, where Katz had studied, dismisses Katz’s findings because he feels the thesis relied too heavily on witnesses. “I am considered a radical on this issue,” Gelber says in an incongruously upbeat manner. “I don’t believe witnesses.” On the other side are academics like Shay Hazkani of the University of Maryland, who makes the case that David Ben-Gurion, as Israel’s prime minister in the late 1950s, sought to create what would amount to a state-certified narrative of events in 1948 — an apparent goal that speaks to the power of cementing impressions early.
‘Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb’ (2022)
Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.
By the end of “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” exactly how Caro has ever managed to finish a book is still a mystery. His research takes years. He sometimes writes out whole pages of adjectives just so he can find the right word, and this is for books that can run more than 1,000 pages. (His landmark Robert Moses biography “The Power Broker” was actually cut down by one-third.) Caro drafts in longhand before switching to a typewriter. He shoves carbon copies in a cabinet above his refrigerator that he says goes back about 6 feet. “Every so often I get up on a ladder and push,” he adds. He probably knows what he’s doing, but it really does look like that cabinet is about to spill, scattering the pages out of order.
In this documentary, viewers get a rare chance to see Caro at work on his latest Lyndon Johnson book, a tome that Robert Gottlieb, Caro’s editor since “The Power Broker,” and not a little bit obsessive himself, refers to as “volume five of a three-volume biography.” “Turn Every Page” is a portrait of both men and their eccentricities, directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, who is able to coax them into sharing at least slightly more about a writer-editor relationship than they would both prefer to keep confidential. They finally give her permission to film them while they edit, but with the proviso that she is not allowed to record sound — which means we don’t get to hear any of their fabled battles over semicolons. (Caro says that Gottlieb thinks he uses too many.)
Gottlieb estimates that he has edited between 600 and 700 books, and he says that the process depends on the author. “Sometimes it’s a highly emotional relationship because a transference gets made, as in psychoanalysis,” he says. It is also a wonder that Gottlieb reads as quickly as he claims. “When a writer or an agent has given me a manuscript,” he says, “I’ve read it overnight and gotten back to them the next day or at worst over the weekend.” Surely he can’t be talking about Caro-length books.
While many of the anecdotes here are not new, it is a kick to see Caro poring over holdings at the LBJ Presidential Library with his wife, Ina Caro, the only person he trusts to help him with research. And the research stories he tells — of how he got Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to open up; of how he came to the conclusion that Johnson had stolen the 1948 Texas senate election — would inspire any writer.