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Posts Tagged ‘Civil rights film’

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution USA (2015)

Posted by keith1942 on July 30, 2020

The Black Panther Party was one of the most important organisations in the struggle for full emancipation for black people in the United States. This was a struggle for Civil Rights rather than national liberation: but it was an important part of the twin struggles of class struggle in advanced capitalist societies and liberation struggles of the oppressed peoples and nations. The Panthers were, at least initially, inclined to a nationalist perspective on the struggle but as the party developed it became a more class conscious and internationalist organisation. Thus the description of ‘Vanguard of the Revolution’ in the title of this full-length featured documentary is fully deserved.

Running for just on a hundred minutes the title offers a narrative of the development of the Panthers from their founding in 1966 up until their serious decline in the early 1980s. The narrative is full of asides that focus on aspects of the Party’s History. There are portraits of the important members of the Party including Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, Bobby lease, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton and Elaine Brown.

The distinctive feature of the Panthers was their emphasis on self-defence for black communities. They utilised the constitutional right to bear arms in order to carry weapons for defence; and this involved monitoring police actions bearing arms. It is instructive that the Republican Party and the California governor Ronald Reagan, normally advocates of unlimited gun control, passed the Mulford Act in 1967 to restrict this right; specifically aimed at the Panthers. Even more oppressive was the reaction of the Federal government and in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then led by the powerful and reactionary J. Edgar Hoover.

“counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, and many other tactics, designed to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate and assassinate party members, discredit and criminalize the Party, and drain organizational resources and manpower.” (quoted on Wikipedia).

The title presents a number of episodes where the FBI and other state security organs used and abused their powers to attempt to subvert the Panthers, on more than one occasion resulting in state sponsored murder.

Several Panther leaders were prosecuted, though the process was suspect. And this persecution resulted in broad support for the Panthers from Civil Rights and Revolutionary [in embryo] organisations and demonstrations involving large popular participation. The ‘Free Huey! Campaign’ was a notable example. But the FBI campaign was successful in the longer term as the film indicates. A notable example of these state trials was the prosecution of the ‘Chicago Eight’, including Bobby Seale, following the conflict around the 1968 Democratic Convention in the city. The conduct of the trial, including the racist treatment of Seale, can be seen in the 1970 The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the 1987 Conspiracy The Trial of the Chicago 8. And the trial is also referenced in a number of other films, including works by Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Watkins. The use of the law to pursue Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver led to them leaving the USA and finally setting up an international bureau in Algeria. The Panthers both received support from Liberation Struggles and took an open stand supporting liberation struggles. This internationalism was one of the most positive angles of the Panther politics.

Another aspect delineated in the documentary are the social activities of the Panthers. The most notable part of this was the ‘Free Breakfast for Children Program’ which ran in Los Angeles. There were also health programs and organisation actions to help black communities fight poverty and economic exploitation.

At the end of the 1960s the Panthers were well organised, successful and enjoyed respect and support across the Afro-American population. However, the overt and covert actions buy the state undermined the organisation and splits within the leadership exacerbated this. The Panthers maintained active and influential throughout the 1970s but by 1980 they were in serious decline. And sections became involved direct criminality.

The documentary charts this history with detail and much illustration. However, there is a real weakness when we look at the coverage of the politics of the Panthers. There is a reference to the 1967 ‘Ten Point Program’; but this does not present the whole programme. The documentary is also scanty in the way that it presents the influences on the Panther politics; including that of liberation movements and the ‘socialist’ camp:

Wikipedia offers Curtis Austin writing that by late 1968, Black Panther ideology had evolved from black nationalism to become more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”:

“[The Party] dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist–Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signalled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.” [2006 book on the Panthers].

One wry reference in the documentary recounts how the Panthers sold the ‘Little Red Book’ on campuses for a profit. But, for example, the development from a Black Nationalist standpoint to a Revolutionary Class-conscious standpoint is not really detailed.

One response to the documentary quoted on Wikipedia is:

 “Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party leader, criticized the film, writing that it presents “a disparaging portrait of Huey P. Newton” and that Nelson “[excised] from his film the Party’s ideological foundation and political strategies, […] reducing our activities to sensationalist engagements, as snatched from establishment media headlines.” [Elaine Brown has appeared in discussion programmes on Al Jazeera presenting an acute analysis of C21st US capital].

Elaine Brown represents one of the other developments in the Panthers; a move away from a male chauvinist position and the relegation of women to support roles to a much more clearly defined revolutionary position on gender roles. This is something highlighted in the documentary.

The limitations of this production reflect the limitations of the main stream media with the documentary aimed at that sort of platform. Much of the illustrative film footage has been re-framed to the 16:9 standard for television. However, there is little available on the Panthers in Moving Images. There is a 2010 documentary, 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers on the ‘Bay Area’ Chapter of the Panthers. The title refers to a violent raid on the Panther Chapter by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Wikipedia pages on the Panthers provide much detail of the organisation’s history.

Both PBS in the USA and BBC 4 in Britain have aired the documentary and it is likely to be aired again in the future; [it is currently appearing on the British PBS channel].. It is a flawed but  fascinating treatment of a seminal organisation in the history of US Civil Rights and even more class conscious action. Clearly the Panthers continue to exercise an importance influence which can be seen in the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The latter is a varied set of groups and politics, but the more radical elements reflect both the class consciousness and the internationalism of the mature Panther Party. It is an interesting reflection on the context that whilst the only response of the state to the Panthers was organised violence there are clear attempts to co-op the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement both by capital and elements of the US state like the Democratic Party. If a high tide of revolt occurs, as was the situation when the Panthers arose, then elements in this movement might rival the Panthers in some ways.

The Black Panther Party first publicized its original “What We Want Now!” Ten-Point program on May 15, 1967, following the Sacramento action, in the second issue of The Black Panther newspaper.

We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

We want full employment for our people.

We want an end to the robbery by the Capitalists of our Black Community.

We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.

We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.

We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

This film, whose title literally translates as ‘Black blood’, was screened in Il Cinema Ritrovato programme ‘An Alternate History of Argentine Film’. It was only when we had an introduction that I realised that the film is an adaptation of the famous novel by Afro-American writer Richard Wright, published as ‘Native Son’ in 1940. Wright himself was involved in the making of the film and playing the main protagonist Bigger Thomas. Wright’s novel, which both attacked the then prevalent racism of the USA but which was also influenced by the association of Wright with the Communist Party USA, was not filmable in his own country. He met the man who would partly script and also direct the film, Pierre Chenal, in Paris. Chenal had been an émigré in Argentina during the war and had seen the stage version created by Orson Welles in Buenos Aires. Since they could not arouse interest in Europe the pair produced the film in Argentina through Argentine Sono Film.

Wright’s seminal novel traces a series of events in which young black man Bigger Thomas is inadvertently involved in the killing of a white woman. The hysterical and racist outcry leads to his imprisonment, trial and execution. One gets a sense of Wright’s portrayal in the diatribe delivered by the prosecutor  at the trial which includes the following:

“Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!” (1972 Penguin edition).

Bigger is not portrayed as innocent, in his flight from pursuit he kills his black girlfriend Bessie to protect himself. But there is no balance between his acts and the response of the predominately racist white population: indeed he is charged with both murder and rape, despite the lack of evidence for the latter. Wright’s purpose in the novel was not just to depict and attack white racism but also to portray the effect on the negro [the term then used] population. In his introduction ‘How ‘Bigger’ was born’ Wright writes of one model:

“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. But as he laughed and cursed and broke them, he knew that someday he’d have to pay for his freedom. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos of intense elation and depression. “

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Wright provides a running commentary on Bigger’s thoughts and emotions, from his family life in a slum, through his conflicted contacts with white people, his crime and subsequent flight and the trial and sentencing.

The film condenses the novel greatly, one section left out is the extended plea by the defence lawyer at the trial: that seems more didactic than the sequence in the film. It does retain the opening scene of the novel as Bigger hunts a rat that is terrorising the family slum. The film does eschew the subjective element, there is no attempt to present Bigger’s mental state nor any voice-over. So we see a fairly conventional cinematic narrative following Bigger through the few days as the events unfold. The filmmakers manage to recreate a sense of the Chicago of the book, though not the snow, with the book set around the New Year. They cut between studio sets in Buenos Aires and stock footage of the actual Chicago. The film has at times a strong expressionist and noir feel, especially in the sequences in which Bigger is hunted down. There is an impressive rooftop pursuit which ends under a looming water tower.

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

In the novel Bigger is 20 years of age but Wright in the film is clearly much older. And he is better at the fear than the anger of his character. Bessie seems more of a good-time girl than in the novel. Several US film actors appear in the film including Jean Wallace as the victim Mary Dalton together with amateur black actors. This did not assist the release in the USA; 14 minutes were cut from the film. It seems that the UK release was the cut version.

The film has something of a hybrid status. The Argentine film programme basically slotted into the category of a national cinema, with some level of critical engagement. But there is no sign of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist standpoint that emerged only a few years later with the work of Solanas and Getino. However, Santa Negra, with its US setting and engagement with the situation of negroes/Afro-Americans is essentially a film about civil rights. It was the most oppositional of the films that I saw in the programme, but of a different ilk from them. The full-length version, screened at the Venice Film Festival, was thought lost. But a film historian found a 16mm print which was used to reconstruct the 35mm version by the Library of Congress. Whilst it is a lesser work than the original novel, it is a powerful representation of the period and situation and hopefully will receive wider circulation.

Posted in Film adapted from a book, Latin American film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »