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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlackWomensLivesMatter, Too: A Look at Stanley Nelson's New Black Panthers Documentary

There are the documentarians who choose to approach their topics from a very conscious, political standpoint (like how Gabriela Cowperthwaite approached Blackfish). Then there are the filmmakers whose approach is more objective, journalistic. That's just how I'd describe Stanley Nelson's new film, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION.

That's not to say that either style is better than the other, but I do find the former more compelling to watch. In THE BLACK PANTHERS, Nelson's temporal narrative of events is peppered with commentary from its subjects, but the film itself doesn't really have a point of view of its own. So I struggle with that here, but I praise Nelson for exploring a significant political group that remains one of the most misrepresented yet relevant entities of American kind. The film is a 360-degree look at the rise and fall of The Black Panthers, exploring the tumultuous political climate at the time (predominantly throughout the 1960s and 1970s), featuring interviews from some of the surviving members and other influencers of the time who give the film a much needed perspective. A benefit of Nelson's objectivity is that it allows the film to breathe on its own. We get to hear from people like co-founder Bobby Seale, whose late-career run as mayor of Oakland, CA, made headlines, leader Huey P. Newton whose imprisonment launched its own new movement, spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver ,whose unpredictable moves led to a divide among the Panthers. From navigating often fatal police raids to providing insight into what it was truly like to be a part of a group that was revolutionary yet unwelcome, the interviews underscore a message that is now its own hashtag: black lives matter.

But there is an aspect of the film that has been weighing on my mind for weeks, because the subject is introduced but never explored: the women of the Black Panthers. While people like Kathleen Cleaver, Eldridge's wife, and others are among those represented in the film, their stories are not told beyond mentioning that they were a part of the movement and bared witness to many of the injustices served to their male counterparts. Though some of the men featured offer that the women were often seen as sex objects or in the kitchen cooking for the guys, not as much on the frontlines--despite some of them having shown interest in "carrying a rifle." It is clear from the old footage captured in the film that women were certainly present on the scene, and passionate about the cause, but their perspectives are neutered afterthoughts. Which bothered me watching the film, and still frustrates me to write it today. That's a layer that could have really distinguished this film and told a more pointed story that few people discuss. It made me wonder how many women's lives were lost in police raids, how they treated one another, where their voices of command fell among each other. Where is this story?

Granted, this is likely not the story Nelson was trying to tell. But is it right in this day and age to tell a story, especially as one as broad as this, about the Black Panthers without the female voice? It further separates the idea that the women were separate from the actual movement, and that's not accurate. As briefly mentioned in the film, they were as important as their counterpart yet not visible. If you're doing general research on the Panthers and a need resource, or interested in learning more about their story (from a male perspective only), THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION is definitely for you. But while it highlights Nelson's sophisticated storytelling, it marginalizes a deeper layer to the Panthers' biography.

THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION opens at Film Forum in New York on September 2, with a national roll-out to follow in the fall.


37paddington said...

Great review. I often feel the same frustration at how invisible the women are in the history of the black panthers, and until recently civil rights.

Regina is... said...

valid points. looking forward to seeing it this weekend!

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