Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 26 July 2010
Categories Viva Varda: The Films of Agnès Varda
We had peace and love, we had flower children, we had love-ins and sit-ins and huge free concerts. What we found was a real desire for brotherhood that was magnificent, that wasn’t just about making demands. I wasn’t [in Paris], that’s all there is to it—but I saw things they didn’t see.”1
Agnès Varda may not have been around for May ‘68 in Paris, but she made a point of being present for August ‘68 in Oakland. Her short film Black Panthers is a fairly straightforward record of that equally contentious moment, and it offers documentation and a little insight into the collective movement surrounding the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, focusing especially on the “Free Huey” campaign in the lead-up to the murder trial of Party co-founder Huey P. Newton.
Working with a small crew - including many collaborators from Uncle Yanco, a couple of Frenchmen working with Jacques Demy on Model Shop, producer (for Godard, Coppola, and others) Tom Luddy, and regular Bernard Shakey collaborator David Myers - Varda composed a steady, if somewhat reserved account of the Panthers’ cause, with careful delineation of the Party’s platform: protection from the pigs, education, exemption from the draft, amnesty for incarcerated African-Americans, international black unity against anti-colonialism. Varda & Co. seem to be after a direct and informative account of who the Panthers are and what they want, and although the credits of Black Panthers announce the film as a “reportage” - a word that isn’t quite so loaded in French, but in English generally denotes a work of photojournalism - the film achieves this directness largely through the background information and careful explanation delivered in its voiceover (presumably by photographer Eve Crane).
But if Varda’s approach here seems rather subdued, almost functional, the film nonetheless conveys a sense of both the seriousness and popularity of the movement without diluting the rhetoric of its subjects. In spite of her collaboration on 1967’s more strident Far from Vietnam, Varda’s sense of political filmmaking has always emphasized aesthetics over agit prop, and as such her more polemical works contrast sharply with those of many of her New Wave contemporaries. Salut les cubains, which animates some 6000 stills that Varda took in Cuba in the early sixties, is in her words “about socialism and cha-cha-cha,” but it’s the energy of the latter that gets the point across.2 Here, too, Varda was looking for more direct and approachable means of conveying political messages—Black Panthers is no film comme les autres.
It’s no surprise, then, that Varda’s film begins with the motto “Black is Honest and Beautiful,” followed by images of families and especially children. “This is no picnic in Oakland,” the voiceover explains. “It is a political rally organized by the Black Panthers.” Varda emphasizes community over cause, and while there are a lot of armed men in berets and light-blue and black clothing, brandishing “Free Huey” flags, Varda seems generally more attracted to the women and children with their fists in the air, dancing to live music or listening attentively as Stokely Carmichael proclaims Newton a “prisoner of war” who will be freed “by any means necessary.” As the clarity of the voiceover and the speeches and interviews convey so much hard information - the Panthers’ role in monitoring police arrests, an account of the shooting of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton by police - Varda is free to capture more tangible, vivid, or impressionistic images: a montage of hands clutching copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, military drills, and many details of dress, jewelry, and gesture. Indeed, while the film devotes a good amount of screentime to an interview with Kathleen Cleaver (then the Party’s Communications Secretary and Eldridge Cleaver’s wife), Varda seems just as fascinated with her “natural hairdo” as she does with her role and responsibilities in Panther organization.
Such attention to elements of fashion may seem trivial following so quickly upon shots of Huey Newton discussing his Marxist-Leninist program from Alameda County Jail, but it’s clear that both Varda and Cleaver were aware of the symbolic power of seemingly superficial matters. The Black Panthers were, after all, an important model for radical politics generally, and in spite of their primary affiliation with African-Americans, aggressively put forward a plan that explicitly addressed the concerns of many marginalized groups, including Mexican-Americans, white radicals, and even homosexuals.3 This inclusiveness was frequently minimized by mass media caricatures of the Black Panthers as masculine and militaristic - and support from white American intellectuals was effectively quashed by Tom Wolfe’s dismissive coinage of the term “radical chic.” But for a brief moment the Panthers were vital figures in the international movement of leftist radicalism, and certainly amongst the feminists and student groups of Europe. Jean-Luc Godard would interview Eldridge Cleaver later that year for his abortive collaboration with D. A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock, One A.M.. But Varda had beaten him to it, and while her film lacks the sort of political rigor Godard would have brought to the subject, it nonetheless resuscitates many details and nuances of the Black Panthers’ history that are still frequently elided.
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