Timothy Mckinney's Baadasssss Song

Making art and fighting back: the lowdown on Minnesota's first black feature

Timothy McKinney is a filmmaker. Indeed, he is the writer-director of one of the most vivid, deeply felt, and historically significant feature films ever shot in Minnesota. He is also--at the moment, and for the past two decades--a filmmaker without a camera.

"I was downtown the other day when they were unveiling that statue of Mary Tyler Moore," recalls McKinney on a recent Saturday morning. He's sitting on a bench in Loring Park with the sun on his back and a sharp wind threatening to pull a rave review of his one and only movie out of his hands. "I looked up and saw this huge crane in the sky with a camera perched on it. Imagine how I felt. I just stood there and thought, 'What I would do with that equipment.'"

What he wouldn't do with it, I'd imagine, is film Mary Tyler Moore.

"I had a certain amount of anger about life--about Dr. King's assassination, Malcolm X's assassination, about a lot of things": Filmmaker Timothy McKinney
David Kern
"I had a certain amount of anger about life--about Dr. King's assassination, Malcolm X's assassination, about a lot of things": Filmmaker Timothy McKinney

McKinney is 49 years old and an assistant manager at the SuperAmerica down the block from where we're sitting. When he was 19, he began filming Hampton Alexander, believed to be the first (and perhaps the only) dramatic feature made by an African American in Minnesota. Doubling as a rare document of St. Paul's black community in the early Seventies, the movie tells of a laconic young man who returns home from Vietnam to avenge his father's murder. The killer is one John Weldon, a white, racist city council member with a keen interest in the "Maximum Travel Highway Project" that has already split the neighborhood in two. McKinney conceived his own project as a response to the vivisection of the Rondo neighborhood by I-94, and it consumed him for the better part of three years--not counting the other 27 that he has spent remembering how good it felt to be behind the camera.

"I'm passionate about film," says McKinney more than once--and he isn't putting on airs. He speaks wistfully of editing on a flat-bed 30 years ago ("I was in heaven, okay?") the way other men speak wistfully of getting laid on a flat bed 30 years ago. When recounting the details of a particularly inspired directorial choice--crosscutting in the film's first scene between shots of the father's murder and a commercial jet carrying the son home to get even, for instance--he'll end with the verbal equivalent of a playfully immodest bow: "Thank you so much!" Asked to consider how he'll feel on Thursday night when Hampton Alexander screens at Walker Art Center (it'll be only the fourth public screening of the film), he pictures getting tears in his eyes and leaving the auditorium to collect himself, as he has done twice before. "I suppose that's my baby," he says of the movie, the sole print of which was missing for more than a decade before it turned up in the attic of producer Bobby Hickman's ex-wife and was subsequently donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. (McKinney reckons that the original 16mm negative will remain lost forever.)

The fact that Hickman is the nephew of Gordon Parks--whose classic Shaft was released the year before Hampton Alexander began production--had little or no direct bearing on the funding of the latter film. Like McKinney, Hickman was inspired not only by Parks's pioneering films themselves but by his progressive vision of the camera as an alternate "weapon." As director of the nonprofit Inner City Youth League in St. Paul, Hickman raised Hampton's $28,000 budget through grants and private donations after McKinney--then an assistant in the youth league's community-theater program--had begun to share his dreams of making a movie in and around the Selby-Dale neighborhood.

By that time McKinney was already experienced in the dramatic arts. He had written a play about the Chicago 7 during his junior year at St. Paul Central High, and the following year had created his own politically minded musical called Life is TCB, whose cast of 30 performed the work at eight area schools and at the Stillwater prison. But Hampton Alexander--whose script he began writing before graduation and finished while taking film courses at the University of Minnesota at Morris--was always a movie in his mind.

"I would walk around the neighborhood seeing entire scenes in my head," says McKinney, who drew from his dismay at the gentrification that seemed designed to result from the construction of I-94. The young director was also motivated by his thrill at discovering the first wave of new African-American films--Ossie Davis's Cotton Comes to Harlem, Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and, particularly, Parks's Shaft.

"In 1971, Shaft was it," recalls McKinney, who illustrates the point through a one-man rendition--complete with horn blasts--of Isaac Hayes's score. (Hampton's funky soundtrack--performed by Peter and Paul Johnson of the Seventies-era Selby-Dale band Purple Haze--is a time capsule in its own right.) Like Parks, McKinney has little patience for use of the term blaxploitation to describe the revolutionary outpouring of films made by and about African Americans in the early Seventies. The aforementioned rave review that's now flapping in the wind--written last April in City Pages apropos Hampton's screening at City Club Cinema--asserts that the movie "clearly mimics the blaxploitation of the day."

"That just doesn't make sense," says McKinney. "These films were exploitative of who? Black people? It was a treasure to finally have images of African Americans on the big screen. The success of Shaft gave millions to black people to become their own producers." So, too, McKinney takes issue with the CP critic's claim that the title character (played by community-theater actor Ralph Stafford) spends much of the film "getting decked out in groovy getups [and] getting busy with 'Afro queens.'"

"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.

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