“Howard Alk was a warrior,” remembers former Black Panther Bob Lee in A Portrait of Howard Alk, a 12-minute video about the storied Chicago filmmaker. “He gave me my first brand-new piece. Nine-millimeter Browning.”
Produced by Chicago Film Archives, the short screens tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center, along with Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, as the opening program of what promises to be a fascinating series, “Howard Alk: A Life on the Edge.” Alk (1930-’82) graduated from the University of Chicago, cofounded Second City in 1959 with Paul Sills and Bernie Sahlins, and later partnered with Albert Grossman to open a north-side folk club, the Bear, whose first act was Bob Dylan. (Alk promoted the opening by riding around town on a motorcycle wearing a bear costume.)
A skilled film editor, Alk collaborated with Ed Bland on The Cry of Jazz (1959), featuring Sun Ra, and with Mike Shea and Gordon Quinn on And This Is Free (1964), about the blues scene on Market Street. He got his first big break when Grossman got him a gig cutting Festival (1967), Murray Lerner’s concert film of the Newport folk festival. Dylan later enlisted Alk to help him edit Eat the Document (1973), a cinema verite film of his hackle-raising 1966 tour of the UK, and Renaldo and Clara (1978), about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975.
But Alk had more on his mind than music. With Mike Gray, he made two historic films documenting the Black Panthers: American Revolution 2 (which screened last fall as part of Facets Cinematheque’s series on the 1968 Democratic convention) and The Murder of Fred Hampton, whose footage of the crime scene following Hampton’s shooting by the Chicago Police Department on December 4, 1969, served to disprove the official story of what transpired there.
The series continues all this month, with screenings of Festival, introduced by Lerner (Wed 1/14, 7 PM, Chicago Cultural Center); The Seasons Change and Luxman Baul’s Movie (Fri 1/16, 8 PM, Film Center); The Murder of Fred Hampton (Wed 1/21, Cultural Center); American Revolution 2, introduced by Alk’s widow, Jones Cullinan (Fri 1/23, 8 PM); The Cry of Jazz, introduced by Bland (Wed 1/28, 7 PM, Cultural Center); and a double bill of And This Is Free and My Friend Vince, Alk and David Rothberg’s 1975 documentary about a Toronto street hustler, to be followed by a panel with Gray, Quinn, Cullinan, and Rothberg (Fri 2/1, 8 PM, Film Center.