In 1968, Agnès Varda was living in Los Angeles with her husband, director Jacques Demy, who was there to begin filming his first Hollywood film, Model Shop (1969). Although initially hesitant about living in the United States, the couple quickly became caught up in the wave of dissent sweeping the country in the late 1960s. Indeed, amid the finger pointing in France about the perceived failure of the events of May ’68 to bring about revolution, many members of the French intelligentsia looked across the Atlantic for alternative models for political change. Varda became part of a growing contingent of French artists and intellectuals, including sociologists Edgar Morin and Jean-François Revel, and writer Jean Genet, who were attracted to the ways in which cultural revolt, social criticism and political contestation were intertwined in the United States. These French thinkers were attracted to the expansiveness and creativity of the American counterculture as opposed to the political deadlock that many believed was the undoing of the events surrounding May ’68. A revolt against American hegemony was taking place within the United States itself, and many leftist French thinkers were enthralled.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) embodied this new mixture of cultural and political rebellion. Varda would often travel from Los Angeles to Oakland, filming Black Panther meetings and demonstrations with a 16mm camera borrowed from student activists at the University of California, Berkeley. The resulting documentary, Black Panthers (1968), captures the complexity of the Party, with its blend of personal, domestic and international politics. The film opens with the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” alongside footage from a rally to free Huey Newton, the co-founder and Minister of Defense of the BPP, who was in jail for the killing of Oakland police officer John Frey following a shoot-out after being pulled over in traffic. Varda’s camera focuses on the energy of the crowd – particularly the young children – clapping and dancing as the singer sings, “We didn’t come here on our free will/Our people was sold…. The truth about the whole thing, children, never been told.” He continues: “You got to get that starch and iron out of yo’ hair/Wigs and straightenin’ combs ain’t gonna get you nowhere.” Varda, in an off-screen voiceover, explains to her French audience: “This is neither a picnic nor a party in Oakland. It’s a political rally organized by the Black Panthers – black activists who are getting ready for the revolution.”
It was this mix of the social, cultural and political that intrigued Varda. As the film shows, these “Free Huey” demonstrations became teach-ins, engendering black pride – “Black is Beautiful” – and educating the people about the party platforms. One member is shown reciting the Black Panther Ten-Point Program, whose demands included full employment, decent housing, and self-determination for black people, an “end to the robbery by capitalists of [our] black community”, and “an education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society”.
Black Panthers highlights the group’s ideological and activist focus on exposing the truth about American expansionism and imperialism. The Black Panthers dragged the myth of innocence out of the collective (white) American subconscious and exposed its hypocrisy and deceit, forcing people to acknowledge the long history and current reality of their own nation’s imperialism abroad and colonisation of black Americans at home. Similarly, activists opposing the US war in Southeast Asia framed it as yet another example of the United States imposing its will on people of colour in the Third World. As Newton explains in the film, “[The Black Panther Party] is a Marxist-Leninist program, and I was greatly influenced by the Cuban revolution, and the Black Panther Party are practical revolutionaries. We identify with the armed struggles of colonized people throughout the world.” In fact, Newton frames his own situation as a struggle between the establishment and the “colonized Black people”.
By the 1960s, many Third World nations had gained their independence from colonial European powers, and many other subjugated people were fighting wars to gain their freedom and the right to self-determination. Several groups sought to cross national boundaries and connect these struggles. The Black Panthers were an integral part of the effort. By appropriating and recontextualising the colonial history of these countries, they identified black people in the US as part of the Third World, requiring political and economic independence to end their oppression and status as colonised peoples. This connection between domestic constructions of race and transnational alliances that transformed the space of the “internal colonized” in America, enabled African-Americans to redefine themselves as compatriots with other people of colour oppressed by American political and military might.
Varda was deeply influenced by the Black Panther’s move to determine their own form of revolution. As Huey Newton explains in the film, since the days of slavery, black men and women were associated with the body – separate from and inferior to the life of the mind, which was reserved for the white man. But according to Newton, black liberation meant a breaking down of this opposition between mind and body; the Black Panthers would become the theoreticians of their own revolution. This “Mind and Body” theory awakened Varda’s own consciousness vis-à-vis the position of women in a patriarchal society. In a 1977 interview, she claimed,
The Black Panthers were the first to say, “We want to make the rules, the theory.” And that’s what made me aware of the woman situation. A lot of good men had been thinking for us. Marx did. Engels did…. Yet maybe we need to get through Marx, for Marx doesn’t give the keys and answers for us women. (1)
Black Panthers was scheduled to be shown in October 1968 on the French television series Five Headlines; however, it was canceled at the last minute because, as Varda put it, the censors were afraid the film would “reawaken the students’ anger” – rekindling the explosive events that brought the country to a standstill earlier in the year.
1. Gerald Peary, “Agnès Varda”, Agnès Varda: Interviews, ed. T. Jefferson Kline, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, 2013, p. 91.
Black Panthers (1968 France 31 mins)
Prod Co:Ciné Tamaris Prod, Dir:Agnès Varda Phot: Paul Aratow, Agnès Varda, David Myers, John Schofill Ed: Paddy Monk Sound: Paul Oppenheim, James Steward