Why You Should Watch the Electric ‘Hum 255,’ Now Streaming Free

Kartemquin Films

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Kartemquin Films, a pillar of American nonfiction cinema. Founded by Stan Karter, Jerry Temaner and Gordon Quinn to pursue “cinematic social inquiry,” the company has built up quite the catalog, most notably including the work of Steve James. Yet there’s a lot more to Kartemquin than Hoop Dreams. To celebrate their anniversary and draw more attention to the gems in their back catalog, Kartemquin is streaming their entire filmography for free over the course of the year, one or two films per week, in chronological order.

This week’s films include Anonymous Artists of America and Hum 255, the latter of which remains a remarkably relevant piece of social and political history. Filmed mostly in 1969, its story goes back to the 1968 student protests at the University of Chicago (the alma mater of all three Kartemquin founders). At issue was the firing of Professor Marlene Dixon, a prominent Marxist academic. Students occupied the Administration Building and demanded her reinstatement.

Grainy footage of the event begins the film, a record of students debating how to best communicate their message from their precarious position in the university offices. Then an administrator arrives with summonses for the students to appear before a disciplinary committee. After the protest, which failed to get Dixon’s reinstatement, 42 students were expelled and 81 were suspended.

Directors Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn then fast forward to the fall of 1969, where the students of Humanities 255 and 256: Documentary Film Workshop have invited two of the expelled students to a meeting. The discussion, which ranges in content from the state of American higher education to the Black Panther Party and the murder of Fred Hampton, is a time capsule of political discourse among young people in the late 1960s. The truth turns out to be much less radical or committed than one might expect.

Blumenthal and Quinn zoom in on one young woman, an expelled student who walks into the room with an agenda shaped by her political experience outside the university. Yet the response she gets is one of slight distance. The students seem to gather around the same broad political opinions but have trouble expressing action. One bespectacled white student with tremendous frizzy hair talks about his own activism, which mostly consists of giving some money to the Panthers, going to black dance clubs to socialize and feeling tremendously guilty about his social position.

To this point, the class’s apparent lone black female student points out that perhaps educating white people about race is a more effective approach than trying to make token black friends on the dance floor. Yet it also speaks to a larger issue, one which turns Hum 255 into a self-reflective documentary that remains instructive to this day. The expelled activist who has driven most of the conversation turns this student’s guilt around. Why does he think that his guilt is productive? How does putting himself beneath expelled students and oppressed populations do any good? Where is the activism in self-loathing?

The unasked follow-up question is this: What is the point of this film? Why invite back an expelled student only to shoot some footage for a class project?

For her part, she thinks it’s about morality.

“I wouldn’t be back here this year at the U of C if you didn’t feel some kind of solidarity with me…but it’s never done anything in terms of people being able to concretely say what it was. There’s no movement on this campus this year. You’re not supporting the women’s movement or the black students association but you have some kind of moral hang up that you’re inviting us back.”

The students around her say there’s nothing they can do, that they give money to the Panthers, that it will take them time to discern their own politics and their own goals. Blumenthal and Gordon follow the conversation with their camera, moving in and out of focus, capturing the way these seated students react to the frustrated energy of their former colleague. Yet there’s no resolution. She calls their inaction a “cop out,” and she’s probably right. Their interest in her is primarily moral, not political. It’s a way to assuage their guilt for not occupying the administration building and for not themselves being expelled.

This impulse holds a fascinating potency now, almost 50 years after the expulsion of 42 students from the University of Chicago. Is there usefulness in making a documentary out of moral regret, primarily for an audience of similarly remorseful people? Hum 255 remains electric because of its self-reflection. Blumenthal and Quinn highlight the contradictions in their subject matter and use the editing room to deconstruct the motivations of the initial shoot. Today there are plenty of documentaries, political or otherwise, that avoid looking into the mirror in this way. It is always embarrassing to realize that a filmmaker isn’t quite sure why their film exists, whether it’s through a meandering international ramble, a tone deaf panorama of heroic masculinity, or something else. The lesson of these early Kartemquin films, equally true of experiments like Inquiring Nuns or Parents, is that such a frustrating overconfidence can be avoided by a commitment to honest self-reflection.

Watch Hum 255 for free on the Kartemquin Films website through January 28th.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.