Serpico: Observations and Thoughts


“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).

It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.

Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.

Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.

What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.

The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.

This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.

In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars


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Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


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.

All sorted?

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.


For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution