Stanley Nelson’s Black Panther movie – a righteous antidote to fantasy

Two movies called Black Panther have now shown in South Africa. The first was a lavish Marvel fantasy about a feudal African state, Wakanda, whose monopoly of the mineral vibranium allows its ruling elite to create a hidden high-tech utopia that, by the end of the film, has saved the life of a CIA agent and established a charitable foundation to help impoverished African-Americans.

The second was film-maker Stanley Nelson’s 2015 PBS documentary Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution, shown by UJ’s VIAD (Visual Identities in Art and Design) at the Market Photo Lab auditorium last night in the presence of the director.

Nelson
Film-maker Stanley Nelson

The two films stand in implicit – though not intentional – dialogue with one another. What the Black Panther Party achieved made multiple subsequent commercial appropriations of the name and the iconography possible and lucrative. Meanwhile, the fantasy caricature called “Killmonger” in the fiction film – armed, strong, articulate; righteously angry but indiscriminately murderous – owes far too much to how the US government and the FBI tried to portray the real Panthers through the gevaar they fanned in the late ’60s and ‘70s.

Nelson told his audience that as a black youngster growing up in the Panther era, the assertive image and activities of the movement had impressed him with the possibility of a new future: “Before that, you’d never see a black man even wag his finger in the face of a white.” It was that ground-breaking impact he wanted to convey in the movie – that, and to provide real information to counteract the negativity and ignorance infusing many mainstream tellings of the story. “To even get that anti-capitalism [of the Panthers] mentioned on PBS,” he believed, could shift the boundaries of viewers’ understanding.

Nelson’s two-hour film is powerful and moving. Visually, there are no wasted frames. Words and images marry beautifully – with the music too: Tom Phillips’ soundtrack offers an authentic soundscape of the times, with everything from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft to Gil Scott-Heron to Soul Train invoked.

images
Selling books for the Panther cause

In putting the record straight on both the work of the Panthers and the literal war waged on them by the American State, the film does two things particularly well. The first is to give agency to many voices, not only those of leaders – where Kathleen Cleaver’s powerful personal narrative often dominates – but also of the working-class men and women who formed the movement’s rank and file. These were people who dreamed, as one woman did, of “carrying my baby on one side and my gun on the other”; the man who, facing death in the Oakland shootout, “finally felt free” – and who weren’t afraid to say that sometimes their leaders could be mistaken, quarrelsome or unstable. The dignified intelligence of these survivors of the US State’s massacres, their sharp political reasoning, regrets and hopes transcend all generation gaps.

Tarika
Artwork by Tarika Lewis

The film’s second strength lies in its bridging of the gap often perceived between cultural creativity and politics. It’s too commonly assumed today that art inspired by struggle is mere “propaganda” and has no right to its own aesthetics. Nelson’s film showed the unity between iconography, style and political struggle: the Panthers created a visual language that was seamless with their politics. South African MEDU artist Thami Mnyele observed: “For me as a craftsman the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture.” That’s very close to what Emory Douglas, one of the two main graphic artists on the Panther paper (the other was Tarika “Matilaba” Lewis) said in the film.

Also seamless was the Panthers’ work for both survival (free healthcare, school feeding schemes, research into sickle-cell anaemia) and self-defence. They were two sides of the same coin of struggle. When the forces of the US state drove a wedge between them, and when even some members began to see them as in opposition, the cracks fatally weakened the whole. Some of Nelson’s interpreting historians perpetuate that division in their analysis.

Emory 2
Artwork by Emory Douglas

Nelson’s history meticulously employs multiple sources, including contemporary broadcasts, retired police officers and FBI papers. What’s absent, as one questioner noted, is any record of the political debates taking place in branches: the way revolutionary and reformist strands within the movement engaged and argued (presented only through the elite paradigm of ‘Huey versus Eldridge’), and how they related to other organisations. (That’s a huge job, and Nelson pointed out he did only have two hours. One analogous history that does manage to detail both lives and work, and the fine nuance of political argument is George Lewis’s magnificent AACM history A Power Stronger than Itself https://www.amazon.com/Power-Stronger-Than-Itself-Experimental/dp/0226476960 – and that comes in at 650 pages.)

One audience member asked “Where was Angela Davis?” – but she was never a member. Perhaps more pertinent is the total invisibility in the film of George Jackson, who was a member, rose to high rank while chained within the US prison system, generated rigorous analysis of the state and the struggle, (https://www.amazon.com/Soledad-Brother-Prison-Letters-Jackson/dp/1556522304 ; https://www.amazon.com/Blood-My-Eye-George-Jackson/dp/0933121237 ) and was assassinated in 1971.

George J
Soledad Brother: George Jackson

So there were points where more context could have been illuminating. Since before the 1860s and through to Malcolm X, African-American struggles have produced advocates of armed self-defence and the need for revolutionary change. Though its specific urban form was fresh, the Panthers’ ideas did not spring fully-formed from nowhere. Additionally, while audience members at the showing discussed the Panthers’ influence on Black Consciousness in South Africa, some Panthers also drew significant inspiration from the era’s independence struggles and victories in Africa. That was in the film only implicitly – in, for example, Eldridge Cleaver’s sanctuary in Algeria, in the sartorial style of some members, and in Douglas’s artistic style. It’s a thread that’s important, and often overlooked.

Though we saw scenes of routine police viciousness, other aspects of oppression, such as the abject poverty to which many African-Americans had been reduced, were visible only by implication (in, for example, the desperate need for school breakfast schemes). The massive protests and riots of 1967 (in Newark, Detroit, and nationwide) – which preceded those a year later following the murder of Martin Luther King – didn’t feature in the narrative either.

That doesn’t devalue Nelson’s movie. It merits far more than the single showing to a self-selected audience that it received last night. What the protagonists have to say is relevant to many current debates: on decolonisation, culture, and the limits of reformism. But it does mean that there are many more works about the real Black Panthers still waiting to be created. The Wakanda Foundation is unlikely to fund them.

*****

As a sad postscript, news has just come in of the death of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, founder of the Last Poets, who provided one of the important soundtracks to the politics of the Panther era. See this Guardian appreciation at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/06/jalal-mansur-nuriddin-last-poets-obituary-grandfather-of-rap

 

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