In its detailed and harrowing look at the figures and events that led up to the notorious August 1971 massacre at San Quentin prison, “Day of the Gun” reps scrupulously balanced reporting on a substantial slice of recent American history for local webcaster KRON-TV in San Francisco. Still, younger viewers may draw a distorted lesson on the period from docu because of the lack of a wider perspective on the era’s varied cultural and political dimensions. Nonetheless, pic, which could easily have been called “When the ’60s Went to Hell,” deserves wider fest play, and measures up as a viable theatrical player.
After establishing inmate and Black Panther leader George Jackson as a man who could be simultaneously viewed as “a proud revolutionary” and “a thug,” story adopts a chronological structure, explaining Jackson’s background involving a strong, loving mother and his drift toward petty crime as a teen in Watts. A one-year-to-life sentence sent Jackson to California’s Soledad prison, where he absorbed the writings of Marx, Lenin and Mao, and took a very literal view of revolutionary action against the state.
Pic draws upon a large repository of TV and film footage and news photos to include clips of Jackson during interviews and countless stills of the prison and the chain of events leading to the final bloody clash. That process began with the killing of an inmate by guards, already known for brutalizing prisoners. When a guard was killed in retribution, Jackson was among those accused of the murder (which he later confessed to the publisher of his highly acclaimed bestseller, “Soledad Brother”).
The story takes on the aspects of a novel as it relates how Jackson became romantically involved with Angela Davis, a brilliant young UC professor who ended up being accused (and later found not guilty) of running guns for Jackson via the Panthers, and then, how Jackson’s previously mild-mannered brother Jonathan staged a takeover of the Marin County courthouse where Jackson was being arraigned — leading to Jonathan’s death.
Transferred to San Quentin, Jackson is depicted by inmates who are still living as a glum man on a mission. Many, even those sympathetic to his politics, now conclude that his revolutionary ideas had devolved into pure, bloody revenge. Docu, however, leaves the conclusions to the viewer.
Producer-director-writer-lenser Ken Swartz greatly benefits from his interviews with survivors, ranging from an expansive Davis to the complex figure of attorney Stephen Bingham, suspected for a time (and, like Davis, exonerated) of having slipped weapons to Jackson.
Production package is energized by robust editing and pacing.