Fifty Years On (Specters of 1968): Black Panthers

black-panthers-agnes-vardaIn honor of the half-century anniversary of the epochal years of 1968 and 1969, I meant to propose a little series of reviews commemorating the films of those years last summer, particularly with all the academic conferences and articles trying to rekindle the lost spirit of ’68 or otherwise to dissect it. I didn’t get around to it at the time, but with the era lulled to sleep last month by Quentin Tarantino’s phenomenal Once Upon a time in Hollywood, now seems as good a time as any to start! I apologize that I’m a year late to officially celebrate the 50th of some of these films, but a great film doesn’t need a deadline to be remembered. 

This particular review is also in commemoration of Agnes Varda, who passed away earlier this year. RIP. 

Most non-American filmmakers drawn to visualize their escapades in the US, or their fantasy projections of US life, are perhaps naturally attracted to, and unable to escape the pull of, America’s paradigmatic genre, the Western. Although heavily freighted with mythological weight, the genre doesn’t prescribe any intrinsic disposition. Initially structured around absences – of marginalized people, of violence perpetrated in the name of Manifest Destiny, etc – which various filmmakers have undertaken efforts to correct, the Western has become one of cinema’s most mutable forms for theorizing American existential uncertainty and the growth pains of a nation growing physically but not necessarily morally.

Thus, for the Italian Sergio Corbucci, the West became a burial ground. For the German Wim Wenders, contrarily, the West became a Romanticized, Emersonian portrait of exploratory selfhood, not to mention a gulf between desire and reality that threatens to dissolve the self in a deeply existential morass of uncertainty. For some, the open expanse signals space to cultivate, and for others, it signifies the untouched primacy of truth prior to civilization, and still for others it asks knottier questions about how to experiment with identity without becoming circumscribed by it, to remake the self and the land in tandem and often, to conquer and to be conquered by that desire to conquer.

But the West, in another guise, was also a land of opportunity, or at least hopeful escape from persecution, in another way. For many African-Americans who ventured to California in the first half of the 20th century, confronting not a wildland of uncarved space ready for adventuring but new forms of oppression and discrimination, the West was not only a way to partake in the American Dream, but to critique it. Because African-Americans had reason to and did develop a radical tradition often not associated with white Western travelers, they aren’t typically associated with the geography and moral architecture of the Western. But for many African-Americans, moving out West became not only a means to (or hope to) remake the self, but to fight in service of a new imagination of the world, to refuse to let go of the dream of worldwide revolution and acquiesce to the moral vistas often associated with America and American expansion.

It is this “West,” not the desert landscape of the 19th century, which Agnes Varda turned to in her finest American film. Immediately drawn to and caught up in the spirited rhythms and combustible movements of present-tense America rather than using America’s past as a canvas upon which to refract various personal traumas or historical or representational conundrums, Varda’s Black Panthers draws attention to wayward souls dedicated, unlike many Western protagonists, to not only finding their way in America but questioning the nation’s moral principles more fundamentally. Including, if need be, by throwing the nation off the precipice of its fallacious sense of stability and holding its feet to the fire in demanding justice. No doubt thinking through other flavors of worldwide resistance that swept the earth beyond her native France in the summer of ’68, Black Panthers is Varda’s earnest documentary attempt to discover and share the flavor of resistance so loudly emanating from Oakland California in ’68, a current which one particularly hazy white man in the film (the only white interviewee subject) seems entirely bemused by.

Early on in this 31-minute documentary, Varda’s narrator gives perhaps the definitive sentence-length summary of the personal style of the Panthers: “when they dance, they clench their fists”. She immediately draws us to the dialectics of provocation and asceticism, looseness and rigidity, that so consciously defined the Panthers’ self-authored persona and their canny, theatrical manipulation of the public gaze. Not to mention their ability to encapsulate and polemicize various dualities found in the African-American tradition, particularly the tragicomic spirit of the blues and its inextricable entanglement of pleasure and pain, rapture and earthly anxiety. For much of its length, Varda’s wonderful little film latches onto this spirit, seeing its fluidity and sense of contradiction as a serious way to navigate the tempestuous climate of the ‘60s. And, in the film’s final moments, this current tests and confounds the filmmaker’s ability to separate viewing from commenting or to fall back on the artist’s perennial aesthetic detachment and dispassionate observation. Rather than legitimizing the documentary impulse to observe, Black Panthers asks at what point the camera must act.

Of course, Varda does also offer a phenomenal example of the late ‘60s social documentary impulse with Black Panthers, a swaggering portrait of radical political jouissance and viewer involvement in the spirit of resistance. A spirit that the film, in turn, necessarily counterpoints with a silently-manifested awareness of the power dynamics latent in the subject-object relationship on screen. On the one hand, Varda is naturally inclined toward the Panthers’ aesthetics, but on the other, she draws us to the dialectics of spectatorship so essential to resistance in the US, to the ways in which the Panthers are hyper-conscious of being viewed and must mobilize this viewership but are also weary of the visibility of their bodies in a system which often mobilizes that visibility to dubious and oppressive ends.

In other words, her camera at once observes the fray, questions whether the camera can only observe the fray without participating, and conversely captures the danger of thinking the camera can truly and fully participate in a manner that breaks down the barriers between her and her subjects. Although a corrective to the skeptical, otherizing gaze placed on the Panthers at this time, Varda’s film is nonetheless canny enough to resist the illusion of full and unmediated access to the Panthers.

Throughout, the film quietly contests Varda’s camera, as in another early shot of a Panther member perched above, returning Varda a combative gaze mediated through his binoculars. He seems ever aware of being viewed, even of sympathetic eyes and technology mobilized, ostensibly, for empathy. Even more telling are the wonderfully unstressed dialectical frames of, for instance, a boisterous speech by Bobby Seale is displaced in the background on the left side of the screen, counterpointed by a stoic party member in close-up on the right of the screen partially blocking the camera’s access. Even as the Panthers mobilize their audience’s attention, their famously dark sunglasses cultivate an air of mystery and a noted skepticism about being so visible in the public.

Still, despite the creeping anxiety lurking around the film’s corners, Varda’s camera does capture an aura of generative glee, partially because she depicts the Panthers at play as well as at work (both work and play depicting them in action, both a form of “modernism in the streets,” both linked together rather than separated into a rationalist-capitalist work-time model). But also because she studiously undercuts the audiences’ assumptions about the ease of play, as when the rambunctious uplifting spirit of the boisterous beginning is soundly questioned (without being eliminated) by her sudden remark “this is no picnic in Oakland, it is a political rally organized by the Black Panthers” and an immediate, brutal cut to a line-up of the Panthers looking off in the distance, mischievously not-quite-looking at the camera, ever suspicious of onlookers and with good reason.

It is perhaps because this air of suspicion is so duly considered that the film is all the more capable of etching moments of genuine human willpower glimpsed and discovered in the streets. My favorite is an exuberant little sliver where the camera, viewing a series of posters on the wall, is graced by a flicker of humanity in the form of a random passerby suddenly walking by raising a power-fist, either in playful communion with the camera’s probing glance or in resistant desire to make his presence known. The Panthers were, certainly more than any typical Western hero, emphatically committed to remaking America in lines they saw as more commensurable to human flourishing, and Varda’s Black Panthers considers this flourishing in multiple keys: not only the political but the social and the visual, and not only at the level of the formal-ideological, but in minuscule moments of human decision (and indecision) and communication (and miscommunication) that might break through the barriers which blinker our perceptions.

Score: 9/10

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