"No, no, no," he says in a tone of calm exasperation. "Your reviewer is missing the point. Hampton Alexander is not some idiot gigolo, okay? Excuse me: He's an intelligent individual with a plan--with actual blueprints [of the villain's mansion], in fact. He's not going to show his anger in an obvious way; he's not going to stand on the street corner and get himself arrested. No. He's going to get his revenge in a technical way."
McKinney hardly needs a critic to point out the similarity between the character's calculated response to social injustice and his own. "I suppose it sounds as if I'm talking about me here," he says. "And I think I am. Hampton Alexander is a part of me. I had a certain amount of anger about life--about Dr. King's assassination, Malcolm X's assassination, about a lot of things. This wasn't a bad thing: It was time in the late Sixties and early Seventies to vent, to open up. And [the film] was how I did that."
McKinney recalls that even before he shot a single frame of Hampton Alexander, he had determined its promotional tagline: What happens when the very rich control the very poor?
In his endeavor to put the earlier part of that equation onscreen, McKinney wrote repeatedly to officials in charge of the James J. Hill House on Summit Avenue and was eventually given permission to portray the interior of this historic monument as the residence of Weldon (Benjamin James), the city council member from hell. (Funny that the home of Hill--the man who built the Great Northern Railway--should belong onscreen to the chief architect of the Maximum Travel Highway Project.) In the tradition of white devils from many a black action film, Weldon not only murders the titular hero's servant father (played by Hickman) for "taking liberties" with the woman of the house (Marilyn Schuck), but later gloats about controlling the rest of his black staff "like trained monkeys."
Whether owing to the script's contentious view of race relations or to the need to maintain a great man's home in the proper order, McKinney was forced to make do with a mere two hours in the Hill mansion. This proved particularly challenging when the director's World War II-era newsreel camera--whose eyepiece was being held together with duct tape--ran out of film midway through a key shot of Alexander dealing with his own equipment: a briefcase full of explosives.
"Know what I had to do?" asks McKinney, relishing the memory. "You'll love this! I had to take the magazine off the top of the camera, go outside, get in my VW Beetle, drive back to the inner city, go upstairs to the dark room, take the film out of the magazine, load it up again, and drive back to the mansion--and continue shooting with what little time I had left!"
Many viewers may see Hampton Alexander only as a portrait of struggle and not as a product of it--a function of our unquenchable thirst for "pure entertainment," perhaps. The film's myriad technical imperfections--including sparse lighting, soft focus, and imprecisely synched dialogue--would seem clearly attributable to production constraints, and thus easily forgiven. And yet the displacement of underprivileged cultures and traditions under the guise of "progress"--the film's own subject, ironically--has been so effective over the years as to make, say, a shaky tracking shot in underexposed 16mm appear freakishly "unprofessional" rather than legitimately alternative to, say, Spielberg's seamless CGI.
This isn't to say that Hollywood's millionaire players conspire to use their slick production values as a way of keeping those less advantaged from getting behind the camera--not consciously, anyway. But when we in the audience are regularly seduced by spectacle and encouraged to expect it, the result--Tinseltown's continued monopoly on cinematic real estate--is the same. Isn't it enough that money and power should dictate the way of things off the screen? Should the view of an oppressed community from within be held to the same standards of "quality" as The Anniversary Party, whose own shaky camerawork is but an elitist affectation of "realism"?
One of the most valuable things about McKinney's film is the degree to which it engages these issues, identifying its own limitations as a point of view. Consider Weldon's private discussion of the highway project with fellow city council members, an event heard but not seen. "Those people will just have to be moved and relocated," says the villain, while the camera holds tight on the large oak door to his inner sanctum. Now, on one level, this disembodied sequence owes to the filmmaker's failure to find actors who would willingly and convincingly play evil, aristocratic politicians. But is the sustained shot of a closed door not the perfect articulation of the outsider's perspective? And, as the discussion continues on the soundtrack, the ensuing images--documentary-style shots of African-American boys playing on a dirt lot and evading car traffic, their neighborhood in the midst of being disassembled--further reveal McKinney's position and his priorities.
That the director outside the door hasn't yet found another opportunity to practice his craft is a loss. It's also not at all unique within the context of Seventies-era African-American cinema. On the national level, the cycle of black action films lasted only three years--spanning precisely the period of Hampton Alexander's production, in fact; many of the filmmakers and actors who distinguished it were pigeonholed by the industry and unable to bring their talents to other uses while Hollywood was busy fabricating effects-driven blockbusters and white buddy movies. By the time McKinney's film premiered at the Martin Luther King Center in 1974--which the director recalls as an occasion of great pride shared by hundreds in the community--the genre from which it sprang had been depleted both commercially and artistically. The same was true for the neighborhood as well. In more ways than one, McKinney's Hampton Alexander is the image of an environment that no longer exists.