Agnes Varda is most celebrated as the lovable storyteller of “Faces/Places” and the New Wave auteur behind “Cleo from 5 to 7,” but in 1968, her career took a detour. While husband Jacques Demy was shooting “Model Shop” in Los Angeles, Varda hung around the Bay Area to make two half-hour documentaries about the Black Panther Party and its efforts to free Huey P. Newton from prison.
“Huey” provides a dramatic collection of footage surrounding the campaign to free Newton after he was jailed for allegedly shooting police office James Frey. However, “Black Panthers” digs deeper into the circumstances surrounding the rallies to explore the nature of the Black Panther Party itself.
The result is a sobering account of the group’s activist intent, delivered almost entirely in its own words. Beyond the striking contrast to the vilification of the Black Panther Party in American media at the time, Varda’s absorbing portrait of the Oakland chapter provides striking clarity to the pressing sense of purpose driving its actions. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, as the streets light up with the fury over yet more injustices against black people by the police, “Black Panthers” is timelier than ever, and a welcome antidote to blaring media headlines — a movie that goes beyond gawking at anger and frustration to highlight its genuine purpose.
Varda also understands her limitations. The white French woman can’t possibly understand what it means to feel persecuted and vilified on the basis of skin color. Throughout “Black Panthers,” Varda turns to an almost dispassionate (and uncredited) English-language voiceover to explain the proceedings with an almost ethnographic sense of remove that acknowledges her filmmaking team can only go so far in comprehending the struggle they’ve captured. As Newton’s manslaughter charges loom, the narration concludes, “We can only feel their tiredness bearing down on their determination.”
As a result, much of “Black Panthers” gives the story over to them, allowing speeches and off-the-cuff interviews from crowded demonstrations to lead the way. Familiar characters like Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael and Kathleen Cleaver have their say, not pumping fists or shouting epithets but delivering concise explanations and political demands.
Varda leaves ample room for unidentified black men and woman gathered outside the Alameda County courthouse to explain their desire to come out and show their support. They don’t shake with fury or hurl epithets at the camera; they’re open and sincere about wanting to see justice for Newton and convinced of racial bias driving the police force. One man with a young daughter on his shoulders called Newton a model for all of them.
White faces dot the crowd, but Varda doesn’t speak to them, nor does she waste a frame on police officers watching from the sidelines. It’s a striking contrast to the crowd mayhem filling television broadcasts today. As filmmaker Stanley Nelson recently pointed out, mainstream media tends to emphasize chaotic imagery for the voices of rational protestors. Varda doesn’t make that mistake.
In fact, “Black Panthers” finds the party members adopting a positive, even hopeful tone as the camera lingers in their midst. Just when the project risks turning its gaze into an exotic one, Varda turns to Newton himself for insight, interviewing him from prison as he explains the nature of the party in precise terms. He outlines the inspiration of the Cuban revolution on the party’s Marxist-Leninist philosophy and why he feels like a political prisoner.
Sitting against a bland backdrop, he explains how he’s been placed in solitary confinement, deprived of the literature that keeps him company but inspired by the growth of the movement outside. “A unity is being achieved between the white radicals and the black colony,” he says, and to that end, “the black community has already received a victory.” At the same time, he predicts a showdown “between the establishment and colonized black people in general,” an eerie pronouncement that continues to sound prescient all these years later.
Varda’s movie may not provide the full picture of the Black Panthers’ struggles, its violent confrontations, or the leadership challenges that threatened its long-term survival. Instead, it lives in the moment, communing with the passion of the crowd — and empathizing with the roadblocks that it faces. The epilogue is both bitter and optimistic: Following the news that Newton has been convicted, Varda reveals that police officers shot up images of him at the Black Panthers’ headquarters. As she lingers on a bullet hole, the narration concludes, “The story of the Black Panthers is not over.”
Decades later, that story has evolved into a wider need: The national protests that erupted over the killing of an unarmed black man may not subscribe to a single ideology, but they no longer need one. “Black Panthers” gives us a movement fighting to explain itself; today, that battle is the last bastion of common sense.
“Black Panthers” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.