Movies: The Gospel According to Tigre

Philly filmmaker Tigre Hill was skewered by the black establishment for his anti-John Street documentary The Shame of a City. Now, with his controversial new anti-Mumia movie, the knives will be even sharper

Cohn shows footage of Panthers leaders encouraging followers to buy guns and take down elected leaders like Lyndon Johnson. Next comes a montage of reports about terrible cop-slayings through the 1970s in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The soundtrack isn’t done yet. “My style is to have low, ominous music beneath things,” Hill says.

Hill builds his documentaries — this is his second after The Shame of a City, a 2006 exposé of the 2003 Philly mayoral race — by running scenes together, with no narrator. Mayor Frank Rizzo comes on and says: “This is war, anarchy, call it what you want.” Then a quick cut to two Panthers also calling it war. It’s a slick transition. Cohn is proud. But the edit cuts Rizzo off abruptly — you want more from him.  

“I don’t like that break,” Hill says, as he gets a phone call and steps out of the room.

“I’m going to fight him on that one,” Cohn says.

Here’s the thing about Tigre Hill, though. You can’t picture him fighting. Yes, he’s a black filmmaker whose films portray a black mayor as shameful and, now, a black martyr as a cold-blooded murderer. Yes, his films contain violence, question religion, explore the politics of castration. (Hang on, we’ll get to that.) In person, though, Hill is a puppy. He’s not confrontational, not in-your-face with his politics.

Hill idolizes Kubrick, Scorsese and Hitchcock, famously fussy directors. But he’s no control freak. He’s not pretentious, doesn’t dress to impress, doesn’t care to be seen on the scene. He enjoys a drink or few with friends. Many of his best anecdotes, of moments that moved his career along, begin or end in a bar. Hill is, well, Oscar Madison. Oscar Madison as a movie buff, a politics junkie, a history geek, in a ragged Temple hoodie or Ben Roethlisberger Steelers jersey, with a great nose for a story.

“I was expecting this hard-hitting, dramatic storyteller,” Violet Mendoza, a Philly filmmaker who met Hill two years ago and is collaborating with him on a project, told me. “And when you get to know him, he’s this big softie. I always tell him, ‘Your mom raised you well.’”

Michael Coard, the fiery criminal defense lawyer who has helped with Abu-Jamal’s defense, chuckled in agreement when I suggested Hill is hard not to like.

“Based on my interaction with him, he’s a good guy,” Coard said. Then he added: “Based on the trailers I’ve seen [for Barrel], he’s producing a piece of shit.”