The Oscar-winning cinematographer (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Haskell Wexler turned his hand to film direction with Medium Cool, set during the ‘Police Riot’ in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Too hot for its own studio (Paramount), Medium Cool was a box office failure but has since been seen for what it is: A prophetic work that could not be more relevant today. David Stewart talked to Haskell Wexler’s son, Jeff, about his father and Medium Cool for PKM.
As the whole world now knows, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died of asphyxia on May 25 after Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department forced his knee down on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Although the police were initially responding to Floyd using a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby convenience store, their use of brute force escalated into murder. Handcuffed and restrained by two other police officers with another officer preventing onlookers from watching, Floyd’s muffled cries of “I can’t breathe” and “Mama” were the last things he said before he died. As soon as Darnella Frazier, an innocent bystander who filmed the now-infamous video of police brutality, posted the video on Facebook hours after Floyd’s death, riots erupted in Minneapolis along within every major city in America.
On June 1, days after hiding in the White House bunker from protesters chanting “I Can’t Breathe!”, President Trump threatened to use military force if city officials across the country couldn’t quell the protesters. Moments later, before posing outside at St. John’s Church with a bible in his hand in a pathetic publicity stunt, Trump issued the military to fire rubber bullets and tear gas onto the peaceful protesters that lined up Lafayette Square.
The chants of ‘Black Lives Matter!’ and ‘No Justice, No Peace!’, echo another event of civil unrest in America fueled by racial injustice and anger in the country’s leadership: the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Fifty–two years before cellphones and social media, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler had his handheld Éclair NPR camera with him to cover the riots for his directorial debut, Medium Cool.
The Chicago-born Wexler had carried a camera in hand since he was 12, when he went on vacation and filmed uniformed fascist youths in Mussolini’s Italy. While serving in the Navy during the Second World War, Haskell bought an Arriflex camera from a soldier who found it next to a dead German soldier. In 1963, Haskell made his mark in the film world when he self-financed and filmed the Freedom Riders traveling from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. for his documentary, The Bus.
Haskell Wexler posted these clips from his film The Bus on YouTube:
The activist spirit in Haskell stayed with him even when he became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after cinematographers of the Sixties. When he won his first Best Cinematography Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), he said in his acceptance speech, “I hope we can use all of our talents towards peace and love.” In 1968, Paramount offered Wexler the chance to make his directorial debut with Concrete Jungle, a film based on a novel by Jack Couffer about a city boy who breeds pigeons. When Haskell returned to his hometown of Chicago and saw the city preparing to host the 35th Democratic National Convention, he rewrote the script and the movie’s title.
“He did base the title Medium Cool from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message,” recalled Jeff Wexler, Haskell’s son and the Oscar-nominated sound engineer behind Independence Day and The Last Samurai, from his home in Los Angeles. “The medium is everything and that definitely drilled into Pop’s overall philosophy and concept of what it means to be someone who is in media, and it figures into the whole statement about history is written by the people who own the printing presses, you know? That whole idea that there is a responsibility when you have a camera, or you have the pen or whatever to try and speak the truth.”
The new, improvisational script for Medium Cool, according to Haskell, was about “a cameraman with a conscience.” Robert Forester played John Cassellis, a Chicago news reporter who lost his job after the police and FBI viewed unused footage he shot of some of the cataclysmic events of 1968: The Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. led by Rev. Jesse Jackson; the Chicago National Guard’s training operations in Camp Ripley, Minnesota; and black activists living on Chicago’s South Side. He falls in love with Eileen (Verna Bloom), a war widow from Appalachia who works on the assembly line at Motorola while her son (Harold Blankenship) breeds pigeons on the roof of their Uptown apartment. When Harold goes missing, Eileen wanders around the city as it descends into violence during the Democratic National Convention.
For Haskell, shooting in such high-pressure environments, such as the National Guard exercises at Camp Ripley, was never an issue with the authorities. “It was fairly easy to shoot,” Haskell recalled in the 2013 documentary Look Out, Haskell! It’s Real!. “You have to remember that in 1968, the government and the general system was not so picture-wise, not so TV-wise. Television was still pretty new and the idea that someone from the outside with a camera could film what they were doing was not considered a potential threat.”
The tame and farcical exercises the National Guard underwent at Camp Ripley paled in comparison to what they encountered when they were summoned to contain the DNC protesters on Michigan Avenue.
Jeff recalls that “one of the higher-ups at Gulf + Western said to Pop, ‘If we release this movie, there will be a revolution in the streets!’ Dad said out loud, ‘I wish!’
One of the more prophetic scenes from the film’s many iconic moments was when Forester and his soundman talk to a black cab driver (Sid McCoy) and his friends on Chicago’s South Side. The cab driver had just been questioned by the police after he turned in $10,000 that he found in his cab. What started as an attempt to film a sympathetic human-interest story for the news becomes a seething indictment on the media coverage of African-Americans, drawing upon the same rhetoric that was written into the Kerner Commission a year earlier. Headed by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, the commission outlined the culpability of the media sensationalizing the violence in black communities after the Watts, Detroit, and Newark Riots while giving minimal coverage to inner-city poverty. [The report was published in a paperback edition in 1968 and became an instant bestseller].
Although they were listed as militants in the film credits, Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu were members of AfriCOBRA, an African-American art collective based out of Chicago. The improvisational raps against the white-dominated media ends with Felton Perry staring at the camera passionately reciting the only non-improvised line in the scene, “Why don’t you find out what really is? Why do you always got to wait for somebody to get killed, man? Because someone is gonna get killed!” The scene was edited and approved by AfriCOBRA before it made it into the final cut.
Haskell’s brother, Jerrold Wexler, a Chicago real-estate developer, gave Haskell the use of the Sherman Hotel to house the crew and edit the film as it was in production. “I remember going to a dinner party at Uncle Jerry’s,” Jeff recalls, “and he had a big black and white panoramic picture up of the Chicago Skyline. Every other building had an X on it: those were his buildings.” Jerrod was originally signed on as a producer to his brother’s film until he saw what Medium Cool was about. “Jerry then began to realize what the subject matter was of the movie that he had said he wanted to be a producer of and also realize that it might open him up to some incredible liability and seriously hurt his relationship with Mayor Daley.”
Mayor Richard J. Daley’s reputation as a law and order politician was already cemented when he refused to issue permits to Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies, and other activist groups protesting in Lincoln Park, but on August 28th, as ten thousand protesters marched towards the downtown Hilton, twelve-thousand police officers, along with the Army and National Guard, went after the protesters that lined up Chicago’s Loop and Grant Park. Haskell was with Chicago historian, Studs Terkel, when he was getting tear-gassed while shooting footage of the riots. A seventeen-year-old kid kicked the gas canister away from Haskell and Studs as the hostilities grew. Fueled by the disillusionment of the Democratic Party after Robert Kennedy’s assassination that June, the rising death toll of U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that April, protesters shouted out “The Whole World is Watching!” as news cameras captured the footage of batons over bloodied heads and tear gas hovering over the Chicago skyline.
Jeff Wexler was in Amsterdam that day; thousands of miles from where his dad was filming the climactic scenes of Medium Cool. “I glanced over at the television and the sound was off and I saw tanks going down a city street,” Jeff remembers. “I turned up the volume and it was in Dutch, so I couldn’t understand anything, but then I realized there were French subtitles, so I was trying to read the subtitles because I know a little bit of French and then I’m looking at it and I go ‘Fuck! That’s Michigan Avenue!’ It was such a shock because initially looking at it, I figured I was looking at a Third-World country somewhere, you know, Poland or some military coup, and here it was: it was the US military going down Michigan Avenue, my hometown!”
Medium Cool (1969) – protest turns violent
After the gas settled and the film was in the canister, Haskell showed Medium Cool to the heads of Paramount Studios, who were anything but impressed. Jeff recalls that “one of the higher-ups at Gulf + Western (which owned Paramount) said to Pop, ‘If we release this movie, there will be a revolution in the streets!’ Dad said out loud, ‘I wish!’ They really were worried that it was so incendiary that they didn’t want to be any part of what was obviously a real movement in the country.” The film received an X rating, which guaranteed its failure at the box office. Nonetheless, more than 50 years after its release, the film is as celebrated as it is a timely reminder of the power of protest.
Medium Cool ends with Haskell pointing his camera at the audience as the shouts of “The Whole World is Watching!” echo through the end credits. In June 2020, the chants had changed to “I Can’t Breathe!” and handheld cameras were cellphones as protesters clashed with the police in downtown Chicago. Upon reflection of Medium Cool and the civil unrest of his hometown, Jeff said, “I think we’re in the worst polarization now than we have ever been in, but also fueled by the fact we have Trump and the Trump Administration that thrives on all that. I would love to know what Pop would be doing with today’s world.”
Haskell Wexler died in December 2015 at the age of 93. With the world rocked by strife that rivals the turbulence of 1968, Jeff remains optimistic thanks to his father’s spirit. “I’m ever hopeful. That’s the other thing I will say about Pop, is that he was amazingly hopeful and so optimistic. Maybe it’s because he really believed in what he was doing was going to help move the needle even if it only moves it a little bit. I remember asking him, ‘How can you be so hopeful?’ and he says, ‘Because I believe in good people and I believe in the capacity of human beings to ultimately find the goodness in life. In whatever small way, I hope to help people find that.’”