Monday, May 24, 2021

Black Panthers


Stokely Carmichael (left) and Bobby Seale

Kathleen Cleaver

Eldridge Cleaver

Huey P. Newton

bullet-ridden poster

Panther door shot up by police

Huey P. Newton

Director Agnès Varda


















BLACK PANTHERS                        B+                                                                                   aka: Huey                                                                                                                                        France  USA  (31 mi)  1968  d: Agnès Varda

A humanistic, conscious-raising film, among the early California films made by Varda, where this is easily her most distinguished, made when she and her husband Jacques Demy came to Hollywood to make his film MODEL SHOP (1969), where both were quickly caught up in the wave of dissent sweeping across the country in the late 1960’s.  Varda was sympathetic to leftist causes, having already contributed to the Chris Marker collaboration of seven directors in FAR FROM VIETNAM (1967), gaining access to the Black Panther Party in ways the American press could not, even obtaining an interview with Huey P. Newton in prison, offering a fairly detached yet sympathetic view of the Party and what they stand for, often siding with the Panthers, borrowing their own slogans or accepted terminology with no real claim to be objective.  Varda retreats to the sidelines in this film, never imposing her own artistic style, creating what may be the definitive portrait of the Panthers at the time, allowing their voices to resonate without imposing a white filter, essentially making a film the Panthers would have approved.  Shot in the summer of 1968, using a borrowed 16mm camera from student activists at Berkeley, the film documents a Black Panther rally with an unidentified Chairman Bobby Seale at the microphone, which was essentially a Free Huey rally, with Seale and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), a key leader in the Black Power movement, the historic predecessor to Black Lives Matter, seen together making the case that the incarcerated Huey Newton, the Panther Chairman of Defense and co-founder with Bobby Seale of the Oakland Black Panther Party, was a political prisoner who needed to be released immediately, as historically America has “declared war on black people.”  The circumstances for his arrest are shrouded in incendiary rhetoric on both sides, as he’s charged with the murder of a police officer, with another officer wounded while Newton took a bullet to the abdomen in a gunfight that resulted from a police stop while Newton was driving his car, yet no gun is found at the scene of the crime, so there is no physical evidence connecting him to the alleged murder, only the testimony of the wounded police officer.  Nonetheless, he was taken to the hospital by another Panther and awoke surrounded by policemen while handcuffed to the hospital bed.  Coming on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and just two days after that the police shot Black Panther Treasurer Bobby Hutton, only 17-years old, who was killed under disputed circumstances in another police shoot-out, where the Panthers were surrendering after tear gas flooded their building, including Eldridge Cleaver, Panther Minister of Information, author of Soul On Ice, and Presidential candidate in 1968, who surrendered to police, yet maintains Hutton was shot 17 times with his hands up while attempting to give himself up, with police accounts differing, suggesting he was running away.  While the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 caused a moral public outrage, leading to international Black Lives Matter protests that continued all summer long in the middle of a Covid health pandemic, the chant of “Free Huey” has now been replaced by “I can’t breathe,” where the primary sentiment expressed is that enough is enough.  The Black Panther Party was formed in the Fall of 1966 in Oakland, California based on this same outrage from police targeting and killing innocent black men, claiming then that enough is enough more than a half century ago, yet this practice continues with few police officers ever held accountable.  These organizational rallies to liberate Huey Newton brought the Black Panthers greater strength and wider appeal, as it radicalized the American public, garnering plenty of interest in both the black and white communities.  Working for French television, which are the press credentials Varda used to obtain access to the prison interview, the film was scheduled to be screened in October 1968 for French television, but it was never shown for fear it could incite violence and reignite the riots of May ’68 happening just a few months earlier (May 1968 events in France), with Varda suggesting “We weren’t supposed to reawaken the students’ anger.” 

The narration is uncredited, but the voice may be Berkeley philosophy professor Denise Warren, who narrates the film in a dry, emotionless style, claiming at the outset, “This is no picnic in Oakland,” reiterating many of the Panther’s points of view, which remain unchallenged in this documentary, as the voice-over narration offers the pretext, “Oakland police officers are famous for their brutality; they do not hide their hatred of the Black Panthers.  They seize upon every pretext to harass them, to arrest them, to search them and to enter into their houses without a warrant.” Varda offers no police testimony, no educational or historic analysis, yet it’s the one film that presents the Panthers as themselves, made with the best information available at the time.  In America, they remain one of the most misunderstood liberation movements, promoting militant activism while conducting a sequence of armed police patrols that unnerved the Oakland Police Department, calling them “pigs” while alerting local citizens of their rights under arrest.  Inspired by Black Nationalist and anticolonial traditions, with members routinely seen carrying their Little Red Book, or Quotations from Chairman Mao, while also endorsing Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution as well as the writings of Frantz Fanon, they were discredited as murderously violent criminals by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” initiating a massive misinformation campaign through the FBI’s covert counterintelligence operations known as COINTELPRO, COINTELPRO [Counterintelligence Program] (1956-1976) •, which used a Soviet-style propaganda campaign to undermine their reputation in the eyes of the public, as they did with Martin Luther King and Civil Rights leaders who were deemed too activist, using dirty tricks to destroy their credibility and public image, planting stories that vilified them in the press, with more than 30 Panthers murdered by police, another 750 sent to jail, where rising court costs eventually bankrupted the Party.  This information was not known to Varda at the time she made the film, as it did not become public knowledge until an FBI burglary in 1971 by the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, where classified FBI documents were published in The Washington Post.  The first film to reveal the existence of COINTELPRO was Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) which meticulously documents the police murder of Fred Hampton, rising spokesperson and Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, where an FBI informant (who later committed suicide) provided a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment for the police who made a pre-dawn raid, supposedly justified by the bogus accusation that the Panthers started firing on the police.  To this day, the police have never been held accountable for their own murderous activities, continuing to kill blacks with impunity, citing as their defense the danger of the job, yet notoriously lying to protect their own.  The culture of police abuse was the primary reason for the formation of the Black Panther Party, among the first to celebrate the beauty in being black, setting their own definition of “black is beautiful” separate and apart from white industry terminology that has controlling interests in magazine and fashion products that define beauty, with blacks for years trying to emulate looking white, finally celebrating their own natural beauty.  With an opening shot that reads “Black is Honest and Beautiful,” Varda presents the Party line, with the Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver (spouse of Eldridge Cleaver), wearing an Afro, offering her own discourse on Panther women, promoting positive and uplifting images of being black, while also organizing demonstrations, creating pamphlets, designing buttons and posters, holding press conferences, and getting out the message speaking on college campuses, at rallies, and on TV.  

While children and adults alike are interviewed, both male and female, where kids can be seen happily dancing, all offer reeducated and redefined views on what it means to be black, with a young girl acknowledging poor literacy rates in the black community, emphasizing the need for dramatic rhetoric to make an impact, while Party Captain Bill Brent can be seen repeating the founding principles of the Black Panther Party, rattling off (without notes) the ambitious 10-point program.  Coming from him, each point clearly matters and is given a point of emphasis, where these are basically survival tools in a community ravaged by drugs, poverty, and crime, with low educational levels, where police abuse only escalates the existing problems.  The Panther mantra of “Free Huey” is the centerpiece and rallying cry of the film, with Panthers unfurling Panther flags while lined in formation taking their positions on the steps in front of the Alameda County Court House (with police watching intently from the windows), with more marching in formation while demonstrating, shouting slogans, handing out pamphlets and literature, raising money and awareness, creating a daily public presence that becomes associated with Newton’s incarceration, propelling Newton into the forefront of the American 60’s radical movement and transforming the Black Panther Party into one of the most visible political organizations of the era.  All of which is a lead-in to Newton’s prison interview with the filmmaker, which is strikingly honest and unfiltered, where the major bone of contention is how blacks have been abused throughout history, not just American history, identifying with armed struggles of colonized people throughout the world, framing his own situation as a struggle between the white establishment and “colonized black people,” initially captured and brought to this country in chains, leading lives of forced servitude, where historically blacks have been used as bodies for labor while whites have controlled all aspects of the mind.  Central to the Panther political message is the notion of self-representation where blacks are finally taking control of their own minds and speaking for themselves, suggesting this is a break with the past, which is what whites find so intimidating, throwing the weight of the law against them, arresting as many blacks as they can, with Newton claiming 80% of the prisoners inside the prison compound at the Alameda County jail are black, yet they comprise only 32% of the Oakland population.  In his criminal case, though no one, including a second wounded officer, saw Newton holding a weapon, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by an all-white jury in 1968, a sentence that was overturned two years later.  But the night of his conviction, Oakland police shot up the windows of the Black Panther Party headquarters, making a direct hit on the Huey Newton poster hanging prominently in the center, riddled by bullet holes afterwards, sending a message of their real intent.  In the 1960’s, many black African nations had gained their independence from colonial European powers, where the effects of racial divisiveness from the Algerian War in France, best expressed by Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965), with Algeria gaining their own independence in 1962, remains a heated hotbox of discontent even half a century later.  Varda was deeply influenced by the Black Panther’s move to determine their own terms of freedom and liberation, awakening her own consciousness in the face of the growing women’s movement rebelling against the dictates and control of a patriarchal society which for generations had defined and determined “a woman’s place,” with Varda adopting a more overtly feminist tone to her work afterwards.         

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