Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.
—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926
Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.
—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’
In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.
The word vanguard itself is a curiosity. It’s etymological root lies in “Old French” (9th – 14th Century), in the words avant = before and garde =guard. The before guard. A cursory search of synonyms of for the word “guard” conjures up these examples.
protect, watch over, look after, keep an eye on, take care of, cover, patrol, police, defend, shield, safeguard, preserve, save, keep safe, secure, screen, shelter;fortify, garrison, barricade; man, occupy.
Now these words, these synonyms are words which we might think of as conflicting. The words “police” and “keep safe” might take on a cruel irony in light of both this doc, and the way in which the left spectrum views police forces. The words “look after” might seem distant from “occupy” even if they are two sides of the same coin.
If this seems dense, it’s because it is. The word vanguard is an incredibly loaded word. The vanguard comes before, to guard and protect what will come after. But just where are they coming from, and what are they planning to guard?
In October 1966, six black men created the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. By 1970 it had 65 chapters and thousands of members. By 1982 its membership had dwindled to 27 members, its leader was involved in embezzlement and was shot dead by a drug dealer. The history of the party, is absolutely brimming and overflowing throughout this piece, so I’ll waste no time sitting here recounting it to you. If you want to know the events which transpired in the Panther Party, than look no further for a piece which re-contextualizes our history by talking to the people involved, from those right in the heat of the fire to those circling its edges, snapping pictures and jotting the history down. The music snaps and bends throughout, the exhaustive footage chronicling many different facets of Panther life. It’s a damn good doc.
But underneath it all, runs a curious river of thought. The Black Panthers are something of a historical oddity, a loose collective bordering on a militia, committing both social care and terrorist acts whilst advocating the love of Black People, freedom from oppression, basic human rights seemingly denied to them, hounded and assassinated by the FBI, loved, hated, demonized, fetishised and all of this in a 1st World Country. We can often fall into the trap now of only seeing revolutionaries in a third world context, always overthrowing militaristic despots or corrupt inefficient third world plutocracies. But no, here we are, smack bang in the middle of America, one year after the assassination of Malcolm X, two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Well it’s a melting pot. The river then, is essentially this; Were the Black Panthers a force for good, and did they bring about change? When the revolutionaries lose, was their impact worth it?
I went to school in England, and we studied the Civil Rights Movement from 14-15/16 years of age, as a historical period. The Panthers showed up for all of one or two paragraphs in our history textbooks. Beside some cursory reading I’d done on them, watching The Boondocks and reading Assata, I knew little of them. To see this egg prised open, in the most visceral way, watching Panthers recount their stories alongside real historical evidence and photographs and footage from all sides, media interviews, filming they did themselves, news clips and so on. In fact, in its most mind punching move, reads out and displays documents relating to the Panthers from the COINTELPRO FBI operation, specifically designed to dismantle and “put down” ideas of a Black revolution.
We have become incredibly saturated with general artistic content which reinforces our cynicism. We don’t trust our governments, or rather we don’t believe they have our best interests at heart any more. We see them exposed, in the media and in real life, in bed with corporations, corrupt and selling bribes to each other, only going up and up and increasing in scale. But we also consider them abstract, because, since they happen so often, we’ve come to expect them as second nature. When you see these figures, real life revolutionaries, admit that they had underestimated how insidious the FBI were, it shows just how far we’ve come, in a post-Snowden era, when we have an almost total lack of faith that our government ever wanted to help us in the first place.
The film also largely stays silent on any impact the Panthers might have on today’s social justice movements, the #BlackLivesMatter, the recent resurgence in socially conscious hip hop, the continued police killings. In fact there’s so much disentanglement needed just to work out exactly what happened to the Panthers, that it probably would have been overwhelming, and even unnecessary to try and establish links. After all, the film invokes a different era, and perhaps it might even be wrong to look back too closely to try and pull links into the present. The Panthers existed in a radically different landscape. They had endured no Ronald Reagan, no true collapse of the Soviet style Communism, no 9-11, no Iraq and Bin Laden. Instead they faced Vietnam, easily the country’s first truly demoralising conflict, and Nixon.
I mean, can we even compare ourselves in our paradoxical times to the counter-culture movements of back then? Now our marches are tweeted, our personal politics an everyday factor of life, not a bitter battleground, we see our activism in a negotiating sense, of trying to get more BME or LGBT accepted into the world, we’ve mostly completely dropped the fight for left wing Marxism that the Panthers originally held up. We have vague notions of disdain and distrust for “the government” or “big business” but a social revolution seems a bit dreamy in the state we’re in. Sure we can draw lines, and see how they impact us now, but you can draw lines from anywhere. Their revolution can speak for itself, and that’s what the speakers do, they recount their experiences fighting for political and humanitarian justice, at the expense of everything else.
I mean it’s so tough to make any kind of headway into the group, for every right there seems to be a counter balancing wrong. They provided free breakfasts for the poor community, but they also held shootouts and were guilty of orchestrating assassination attempts. They were untied for their love of Black People, but were unsure how to proceed beyond their manifesto, and later the egos of its leaders bitterly divided the party. They were responsible for their own actions, but were also mercilessly sabotaged, harassed and dismantled by the covert forces of the United States Government. Every move they made was always under scrutiny, and like any radical, they were never particularly liked, only curiously watched or viciously hated, from the media by the former, and by the institutional racism on the latter.
If anything, the Panthers help to represent how curious a phenomenon it is to be morally steadfast in a world seemingly governed by moral relativism. The Panthers did not want to compromise, and many would ask how could they in the face of such insanity. Of the vicious, terrifying beatings, the physical beatings by the police, or when they were constrained in the courts by racist judges, of the beatings to the black psyche, the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness seemingly inflicted from the (white) on high. The Panthers is anything, were an expression of pure rage, an outlet of historical vengeance provoked by at least three centuries of Black humiliation and subjugation.
The Panthers have come before, to guard what will come after? Have they succeeded? Is the Black populations arguably less oppressed than they were 50-40 years ago? It seems so,and you can look around the world you live in for numerous examples of this.But the fight against capitalism has only become more diffuse and fragmented as time has gone on, and so has the fight the Panther’s picked up way back when. Now the infighting is everywhere, and identity politics runs so rampant because no one can trust their fellow-man or woman to ever properly support them, since it all seems to be predicated on unstable or potentially unconsciously discriminatory logic.Which is why the film takes on an oddly poignant tone. We watch in slow motion, only a small compression of the time the actual Panthers must have felt, how a revolution dies and fades. How when your very right to fight is compromised and undermined, how a revolutionary force can very quickly spiral downwards into an abyss. In that sense, it’s a cautionary tale. It says that real change can’t be achieved without harmony and unity in the cause, whether its violent or non-violent.
If anything, watching this helps to put the nail in the coffin of the existential manifesto of being responsible for your actions. It shows that even being responsible in the choices you make, the meaning you create for yourself, as the Panthers did by trying to be the vanguard of radical Black change, that there are forces at work which can be constructed to dismantle you, and actively crush and suppress you, channel you into streams you made no intention of going down.The joke being that we already believe in government conspiracy’s, find it far more trite than the Panthers would have done, as the extensive manipulation of a government intent on racial and social suppression was exposed to their horror.
My attempts to wrestle with this subject matter have not been particularly lucid, and for that I apologise. This film can be interpreted in many ways, a cautionary tale, a poignant memory, a historical time capsule, a curious peek into a radical movement, a deep psychological exploration of the black psyche in that time. The point is the film is there, and their story is here. The losers on history’s side do not disappear, they are just scrubbed out, pigeonholed and forgotten by the general flow of history. So to see this, to see people inspired into radical belief and action, not just a curious way to think about the world. The Black Panthers believed in what they did, it was the right thing, not the relative thing at the time. There’s something incredibly admirable in that, even if their actions are ones you may find it difficult accepting. The lines are almost impossible to draw.
Seeing it gives me hope, for the future it may inspire, and fear, that history may repeat itself. But that is for the future, and this film is that of a past, so we’d do well to celebrate its memory. Celebrate the vanguard, for what they represent. Hope for a better future.