Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Black Panthers Vanguard of the RevolutionYesterday, for the first time this year, I went to a movie. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a documentary about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. There was a lot I knew about the panthers but the film revealed my ignorance. It also put previously disparate pieces together to tell a really important story. The film will have a relatively limited release, but I’d guess that it will show up on your PBS station in the near future.

It’s been an especially rough stretch in the neighborhood lately – shootings, vigils, and funerals – so the film got me thinking about justice movements and social change. Here are a handful of things I noticed as I watched:

Women played a huge role in the movement. The panthers conjure iconic images of men in leather jackets, berets, and sunglasses. Men like Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver certainly filled important and public roles. But the film was intentional to show how many women filled not just the rank and file positions but also provided leadership. Sexism and gender discrimination existed within the Black Panthers like they do everywhere, yet women like Kathleen Cleaver and others played a significant part it making the party and its platform what it was.

Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.
Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Taking care of yourself is a revolutionary act. At least it is when you’re surrounded by urgent needs and opportunities. Like most of us would,the film shows many of the party’s leaders struggling to set aside time to be replenished and refreshed. Maybe it’s too much to expect, but what becomes clear as the film progresses is how deeply tiring this work was. As the years passed it became harder to maintain the focus and energy of the early years, especially as the outside pressure and attacks mounted. I wonder what might have been had this movement cultivated an expectation of care and rest alongside its zeal and courage.

It’s hard to create and sustain something from nothing. Unlike much of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, the Black Panthers (as, perhaps, representative of the larger black nationalist movement) were much less associated with African American churches. Someone smarter than me can explain why these movements developed in different ways, but the film revealed many of the panthers to be ambivalent about the church and its role in the revolution. As the government attacks and deception increased, th movement began to turn in on itself- there was nowhere else to go. My bias is showing here, but I wonder what might have been different had the movement been more sympathetic to the churches and – more difficult perhaps – vice versa. I’m aware that much of the Civil Rights movement also suffered and splintered at roughly the same time, but my hunch – my not well-defended theory – is that the spirit of Rev. Dr. King could be found more robustly continuing on local levels than could be seen with the ethos of the black nationalist movement.

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

White supremacist oppression often manifests as internal division within justice movements. Of course, this is not some coincidence of racism but a deliberate characteristic of it. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was an horrific and effective threat to the panthers using their tools of deception and violence to tear the party apart. We see the same today when pundits decry so-called black on black violence without telling the larger and truer story of the racist systems that have been at work on these minds and bodies since the country’s inception. It is one of the terrible lies believed by so many Americans, that they are justified in standing apart from the violence raining down on their fellow citizens, believing themselves to be innocent of whatever vague menace is hovers above the mayhem and death.

The Black Panthers and the history they represent need to be remembered well in this moment. We can learn so much from their courage, strategy, and liberated imaginations. There enemies, too, with their uncreative but unrelenting tactics, have a lot to teach us. Are we ready to learn?

Dear White People

Dear White PeopleI was surprised when Dear White People was made, more surprised when it won an award at Sundance, and borderline shocked when Justin Simien’s directorial debut got a distribution deal. I’ve been following Simien’s long-shot attempt for a few years since he first released a trailer that showed what he wanted to do with the college-comedy genre. From the beginning I was intrigued, as were plenty of others who joined a crowd funding campaign to pay for production costs, and yesterday I finally got to see the film.

A movie that explores race, identity, and class is bound to solicit commentary and Dear White People certainly has. I’m not qualified to offer much in the way of expert opinion but after waiting so long for this film there were a few things that stood out.

The film takes place exclusively on a fictitious ivy league university campus which seems like more than a genre decision for Simien. By placing his African American characters at what many consider the epicenter of tolerance and so-called multiculturalism, Simien makes the point that race prejudice is alive and well among those for whom the charge of racism would be a cultural death. Within these supposedly enlightened environs there will be the occasional acts of overt racism. The film builds to such a moment – a “release your inner negro” party hosted by some of university’s rich, white students – and it would seem overly dramatic except for the similar parties that happen every year on college campuses. You know, in real life. But, and this is significant, Dear White People also shows some of the countless micro-aggressions faced by people of color within majority culture environments. Quick asides, questions, and assumptions by many of the white students show how the African American students are regularly stereotyped, fetishized, or manipulated. Their individual identities are neither seen nor valued.

Simien has said that his film is mostly about identity and the lead character, Samantha White, embodies this.  Samantha is biracial and becomes the president of the African American house and the face of the resistance against discriminatory housing policies. She also hosts a campus radio show, Dear White People (“Dear white people, Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” “Dear white people, Stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”) Most of the lead characters struggle with identity which makes sense in a film about college life. Well, the white kids don’t struggle with identity, not, at least, like the black kids are forced to. And no one struggles more than Samantha. There were moments here that felt a bit over-the-top, but I’ve had enough conversations with folks to know that this struggle is real. The visceral pressure to lean toward blackness or whiteness is strong and it’s a reality that white people will simply never experience. Dear White People does a great job of using a genre-comedy to examine this age-old American theme in a time when individuals are supposed to be totally free to choose the identity that best suits their experiences and desires. The films makes the case that we’ve not arrived at that point and it remains ambiguous on whether this is our best goal.

So there is much I appreciated. On the flip side, it felt like about a third of the film was great and two thirds was just OK. The main characters are meant to stand in for different types which doesn’t allow for much nuance; they often feel flat. More significantly, whiteness exerts a lot of influence in a film about black identity. Maybe this is an unavoidable truth about identity in America. Still, the most interesting moment of the film for me was when Samantha ends her Dear White People broadcast, “Dear white people… never mind.” If I read the scene correctly, she’s done with the responsibility of educating white people. Her identity and place on campus has a logic and value that doesn’t need the foil of whiteness for legitimacy. I’d have liked more of this in Dear White People, but with a title like that and a cultural reality like ours that may have been too much to expect.

Oscar Nominated Documentaries

Searching for Sugar Man won the Oscar for best Documentary Feature last night.  I saw four of the five nominated documentaries – The Gatekeepers isn’t yet available on DVD and hasn’t played recently in Chicago – and thought any of them were worthy of the award.  Searching was the the only even remotely feel-good film of the bunch and I’m glad it won.  The documentary tells the unlikely story of Rodriguez, a 1970’s era Detroit musician whose albums went nowhere stateside while, unbeknownst to him, blowing up in South Africa.  This undiscovered, construction worker provided the soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement and only found out about his overseas’ fame long after the fact.

5 Broken Cameras, like so many great documentaries, provides a glimpse into a world many of us know little about.  Emad Burnat is a Palestinian farmer who films his village’s creative and brave responses to the ever encroaching presence of Israeli settlers.  As family land is taken, olive groves destroyed, and walls built to keep Emad and his people out, the farmer turned filmmaker shoots it all even as the five cameras of the film’s title are one-by-one destroyed in the conflicts that come to define life in this village in the West Bank.

How to Survive a Plague has picked at me more than any of the other nominees.  The film is a fascinating look at the activists who responded to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s.  Their ability to organize and fight for life-saving drugs was incredible, especially at a time when the disease carried such a stigma.  The thing that picks at me is how the film portrays, rightly I assume, the central role white men played in this successful advocacy.  The devastation AIDS continues to wreak on people who are not white men around the world is hinted at but never adequately acknowledged.  With it’s attention to the details of activism and organizing, How to Survive a Plague might be seen as a template for others advocating for justice.  However I experienced the film more pessimistically, as an acknowledgement of the powerful roles race and gender play in the possibilities and limits of systemic change.  Even so, it’s a great film and definitely worth seeing.

The Invisible War was by far the most difficult of these films for me to watch.  The topic is rape in the American military and the almost complete failure to investigate or prosecute the servicemen accused of sexual violence.  “How can this be?” is the question that constantly ran through my head watching the wrongs suffered by many, many women and the indifference shown by their superiors.

Team Spirit by Errol Morris

Have you seen this 8 minute film (commercial) for ESPN by the well-known filmmaker Errol Morris?  It’s creatively done and reminds me of some his documentaries I’ve enjoyed: The Thin Blue LineThe Fog of War, and Standard Operating Procedure.

Here’s what I wonder about this: What did ESPN think I’d feel while watching?  I imagine they were hoping for some laughs and identification with the diehard fans portrayed in the film.  In fact I felt something closer to bemusement and pity.  Also, is there any doubt that  professional sports (including NCAA and especially the NFL)  have become America’s civil religion?

Night Catches Us

My latest review has been posted at (the beautifully redesigned) rednow.

“Surely we are being punished because of our brother.” Jacob’s resigned sons utter these words in the 42nd chapter of Genesis. The brothers had ventured to Egypt in the midst of a famine to purchase food for their families only to encounter the brother they thought was dead—well, murdered actually. Their supposedly dead brother, Joseph, doesn’t immediately reveal his identity and makes his kin feel the precariousness of their vulnerable position.  They interpret their desperate situation as divine punishment, retribution for their earlier crimes against Joseph.

It is 1976 when Marcus returns to his Philadelphia home in Night Catches Us.  His deceased father lies in a coffin in an otherwise empty room, a Bible on his chest opened to Genesis 42. As director Tanya Hamilton delicately unwinds the story, we learn Marcus brought punishment upon the family—a family that extends to the Black Panthers. This group of young African American men and women, variously lauded and feared, had not long before been a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood. Things have clearly changed and Marcus’ return surfaces painful and angry memories for many within the neighborhood.

Read the rest at rednow.