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.

Wrestling for Jesus

You’ll enjoy this film far more than the title suggests.  (Unless, of course, you’re the type who searches out lo-fi, indie documentaries in which case you’re already intrigued.)  Ostensibly a film about Christian wrestlers in South Carolina whose matches are part WWF and part revival meeting, Wrestling for Jesus tells the story of faith gained and lost. I cringed repeatedly while peaking into this odd Christian subculture but director Nathan Clarke ensures that no person in his film becomes a caricature.  The film masterfully avoids all forms of cynicism and condescension.

Timothy Blackmon is the compelling and fractured character who heads the Wrestling For Jesus organization, wrestling under the name of T-Money.  Haunted by his father’s suicide and driven to use his passion for wrestling to evangelize, Blackmon is forced to navigate an increasingly perilous world, including a difficult marriage and competition with another wrestling league.  The staged wrestling in the ring begins to pale next to T-Money’s real life troubles.

Wrestling For Jesus can serve as a case study for a common tendency among certain evangelically-oriented Christians.  For Blackmon and his fellow Christian wrestlers, wrestling is a means to an end.  Each match ends with a preacher standing in the ring issuing a heart-felt invitation for the small crowd of spectators to accept Jesus.  The altar call is the real hook; the wrestling, as entertaining as it may be, is simply the bait.  This bait and hook tendency can be found throughout much of American Christianity and the film shows some of its significant deficiencies.  Even so, the way the story is told, we cannot judge Blackmon or his companions.  His passion and pain invite us into his world, whether or not we relate with his faith or circumstances.

Find this film, watch it with some friends, and enjoy the conversation that is sure to follow.

I received a review copy of this film from the producer.

Of Gods And Men

This is the best film I’ve seen this year.  Directed by Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods And Men is the story of a community of French monks living in Algeria, trusted guests among their mostly Muslim neighbors.  Tension arrives when Islamist terrorists begin threatening anyone whose religion does not perfectly align with their own.  It’s not just the monks who are threatened, the villagers too live in fear and hope the foreigners’ presence will serve to protect them.

Stay or go?  Return to France or risk a violent death?  These are the questions faced by the brothers and the film allows us to imagine our own response in similar circumstances.  The small community must wrestle with the nature of their faith in a crucified Savior as they confront the likelihood of their own immanent suffering.

Of Gods And Men is widely available on DVD.