Making its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, which runs through June 15th, is “Black Panther Woman,” director Rachel Perkins’ documentary on the little known Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party, which was directly inspired by the American Black Panthers.
This Australian chapter of the Black Panther Party adapted the politics and style of the American Black Panther Party, from the clothing to their defiance, attracting the attention of the local authorities. Yet, unlike their American comrades, who numbered in the thousands across America, the Australian chapter comprised of just 10 members – young Aboriginal people who staged educational theatre shows, kept watch on the police on what they called ‘pig patrols,’ and were at the forefront of demonstrations, including the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
According to director Rachel Perkins, what began as a straightforward story, recounting the Black Panther Party in Australia, slowly revealed itself as something more. The tensions around the movement and her personal life tightened around Marlene, and finally led to the break up of her relationship with the party’s leader. Marlene filled the vacuum with alcohol and quickly spiralled into a cycle of addiction that left her vulnerable on the streets. Her vulnerability and her belief in the movement made her a target for black men in power. Marlene recalls the incident of her rape, by two Indigenous leaders, after which she made the difficult decision to stay silent. Dedicated to the cause, and distrustful of police, she, like other Aboriginal women facing abuse, chose to stay silent to protect the movement from criticism.
Forty years later, and still struggling with addiction, she looks back on her involvement in the Aboriginal protest movement from her housing commission apartment in the community of Redfern. In the film, she journeys to New York to an international gathering of Black Panthers – a journey that takes her back in time, to her love affair, her time with the Panthers, and the question of the place of women in the movement.
Now a grandmother and no longer afraid, she speaks out about her experiences, breaking a forty year silence, to tell the story of her abuse in the Australian Black protest movement, to overcome her demons today.
5 years in the making, the film, “Black Panther Woman,” presents her attempt to heal herself and her ongoing battle with addiction, and to add her voice to those calling for a halt to the abuse of black women from within their own community.
Director Rachel Perkins, who is an Australian of Aboriginal heritage, founded Australia’s premier Indigenous production company, Blackfella Films in 1992, and has contributed extensively to the development of Indigenous filmmakers in Australia and, more broadly, to the Australian film and television industry.
She says that, this film, like all the films she’s worked on to date, is intended for an Aboriginal audience first, adding that the premise of it is, of course, relevant for all: “To have a fair and just society, we must have leadership with integrity,” she states.
Marlene Cummins is currently a blues singer/songwriter in Australia, after studying as a blues saxophonist and songwriter at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1990’s. In addition to her musical talent, she has been a regular broadcaster on Koori Radio for years, with her renowned blues show, “Marloo’s Blues.”
Sadly there’s no trailer yet for the film. But I’m sure I will have one to share shortly.
The film is making its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, which runs through the 15th. It should travel, so watch for announcements of future playdates.