Agnès Varda could’ve easily sprinkled her unique French New Wavian style all over Black Panthers, but she rightfully, and humbly, takes a step back. In this half-hour peer into America’s most revolutionary party, Varda understands the stories of the oppressed and the revolutionary classes are best told themselves. She lets Party members explain their ideology, political struggle, and motivations.
A band recites the complex history of the African-American diaspora through a song: “We didn’t come here on our free will/the people was stolen. The thief was the devil/they really was cold…Even stole our name/which was better than gold.” A young and incarcerated Huey P. Newton, well-spoken and level headed, says, “Yes it’s a Marxist-Leninist program.” A Party leader recites an abridged version of The Panther’s 10 Point Program; his words are intercut with younger organizers who are just as articulate about the Party’s political mission.
The Panthers, as they explain, are communist and Black radicals who wanted to see the end of American capitalism and global imperialistic forces. They sought to provide social benefits that were lacking or entirely absent in their communities: free breakfast for kids, free childcare, free ambulance service, free medical services, affordable housing options, and education alternatives—just a fraction of the community work they did that didn’t see any footage. Largely made up of women, The Panthers were also trailblazers in a growing American left and were central actors in a decolonizing world. But beyond the transnational solidarity networks they forged and their revolutionary ideological core, The Panthers simply wanted Black people to be treated as human beings. Panthers assists their reasonable demand to be humanized by offering a starkly different image from their popular portrayal in mainstream media. To the larger public, The Black Panther Party was a chaotic, militant, and mindless mass of Black people who hated white folk and wanted to see the destruction of America.
Here, this “animalistic” group is offered a face. They’re shown to be poised, intellectual, and (righteously) militant but also tremendously gentle and caring. Countless frames feature afro-hairdos, dashikis, and head wraps. It’s clear in these speechless moments that The Panthers were inciting not only a political revolution but a cultural one where Black Americans were retrieving their stolen Africanness back and learning to love themselves. Kathleen Cleaver’s explanation of the politics behind Black hair and beauty best captures the purest role of this movement:
“For so many years we were told only white people were beautiful. Only straight hair, light eyes, light skin were beautiful. Black people are aware that their own appearance is beautiful. White people are aware of it too because white people want wigs like this [gestures to her hairdo]. Dig it? [surrounding crowd laughs] Isn’t it beautiful?”
The words “Black is honest and beautiful” slide across the film’s first few frames. Indeed, it is and always will be.