Back in October, BBC 3 broadcast a documentary entitled Is Britain Racist? The production was typical of what passes for documentaries these days. Either the documentary relies on facts with a twist in the tale or proceeds with crazy experiments to convince viewers of the programme's cutting edge research. Is Britain Racist? followed the second pattern. People were subject to implicit race tests, the presenter had her brain scanned for hidden responses that marked prejudice, and a group of three guinea pigs/researchers went out into troubled areas to test reactions. Deji/Black encountered no hostilities, but was the most searched in shops. Hanna/Muslim was insulted for wearing her niqab and told by White British males to get back to her own country. Richard/Jewish was subjected to fuck off gestures by Asian Muslim males. Race was confused with religion (mind you that blurring exists in the UK). The most bizarre racism test saw Deji, Richard and Hanna offering free doughnuts to passers by as a way of eliciting racial responses, that is evidence of prejudice. The best section of the programme concerned the mutation of "racist" into a new term "Culturalist", which is pig thick ignorance given intellectual status, the blustering nonsense of the UK's Right Wing parties re-cast into a lot of hot-air about preserving cultural traditions and values. This is the sort of stuff that the UK Government has peddled as British Values in its schools...things like the creation of democracy...which the Greeks copied from Britain and its Empire.
Last night, BBC 4 screened Stanley Nelson's masterly documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). (The film can be viewed here). It was all that Is Britain Racist ? wasn't. There were no tricks, just solid research and deep, meaningful images. As Nelson phrased it: "I had to dig deeper for footage that captured an authentic portrayal of the Party and which was not distorted by mainstream media." And there was no gimmicky surprise findings at the close, rather a continual effort to appraise information.
The real triumph of the documentary was its ability to rely on a thematic element: the visible and the invisible. Throughout the film, Nelson focused on the visibility of the Panthers and the invisibility of FBI-- the extent to which the Panthers were almost too open about their intentions, how the need to trump statements led to a frightening visual scenario, one growing out of control; the degree to which Hoover was "insidious" in briefing against the Panthers. The documentary showed the roots of the Panther's appeal and power: style intersecting politics and language. There was a chilling moment on Newton's release in which he stripped off his shirt to reveal his torso: masculine, sexual power, the threat of the phobic Black body. In contrast, the forces of Hoover were mind games, yet more destructive.
The documentary did not lose itself in a survey of cult figures. It read the carrying of weapons as a sign of honesty as well as threat. This wasn't a closet terrorist organisation: it was an open defence unit. Also, the documentary addressed the importance and presence of women in the Panthers. There were not the negative, sex objects often cited. Their parts were as vital as those of women in other Black Freedom movements. They were portrayed then as now, as literate, intellectual and fully aware of their roles and responsibilities. Most interesting was the link that the Panthers made between nutrition and schooling, a modern idea in UK schools, such that their breakfast clubs cooked 20,000 meals a week to guarantee that children started the day with the energy to study.
The skill with which Nelson handled imagery was poetic. Everything flowed into the eye, from the beauty of Black is Beautiful, to the military fashion of The Panthers, to the unchaining of the Afro, to the propagandist art of Emory Douglas, right down the line to how The Panther's controlled the visual image in their newspapers, the auditory image in their radio broadcasts, and the sensual imagery of the voice in their speeches.
There was no pig-shit ignorance in Nelson's documentary-- it was replete with intellectual insights that did its subject full justice. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution matched meaning to method (as did The Panthers), and belongs in the vanguard of documentary film making.