To mark Black History Month, I want to start February’s posts with a screening of Varda’s short film Black Panthers (1968), which Varda was initially commissioned to make for French television, but was not aired upon completion.
The film uses the Free Huey protests in California to illustrate how the Black Panther party aimed to combat institutional racism in the United States. Huey Newton himself is interviewed on camera, and serves as the film’s leading figure both in his presence and absence. Other leading figures like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Kathleen Cleaver also speak from the stage and to Varda’s team, outlining the party’s positions and the conditions that they are responding to.
This is a much-studied moment in American history, particularly Black American history, and I confess that my own background isn’t sufficient to comment on whether or not Varda’s strategy in condensing this broader narrative conveys its historical meaning with any accuracy. But it makes for a bracing and resonant time capsule of a film, one that weaves together the people setting the stage and speaking on it with those who join with them to form the movement.
My favorite visual device, which repeats a few times, is when Varda situates an unnamed attendee in the foreground, in close-up, directly facing the camera, while centered in the background a speaker on stage is delivering remarks. Aside from Huey Newton, who is interviewed from prison, when Varda talks to the lead organizers of the party, they are joined either in the frame or just outside it by people who have heard and heeded their calls to join together. The spirit of collectivity made evident in the protests underscores the significance of Newton’s forced isolation in prison: the separation is itself a serious punishment, and one that is deeply felt on both sides of the prison walls.
Black Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver cuts an especially fascinating figure; it’s hardly surprising that Varda found a way to focus on women in the movement, but it’s also not hard to see why this particular woman ended up commanding so much of Varda’s attention. Cleaver is magnetic, both on stage and off, and handily proves that the role of communications director for the party didn’t just fall into her lap by luck or happenstance.
Finally, as a sociopolitical time capsule, watching Varda’s Black Panthers in 2021 cannot help but provoke despair at how little has changed in the five intervening decades since the Free Huey protests. Point for point, the party agenda outlined by Black Panther captain Bill Brent, whose August 1968 interview punctuates the film, could have been just as urgently presented by any Black Lives Matter organizer in August 2020. While this tragic sense of continuity reveals how resistant the United States has been to recognize (let alone fix) its institutional racism, it also suggests that Varda’s summary of the Black Panther’s cause–and her evident sympathy for it– goes beyond the particulars of the party to capture a more widespread and durable facet of American society.
The English-language audio version of Black Panthers is streaming on MUBI as part of the Voilà Varda series: https://mubi.com/films/black-panthers/watch