“In the past, we died for free. From here on, we’re going to make our death expensive.” This threat made by the controversial Black Panther member, Eldridge Cleaver, is the premise for director Wiliam Klein’s 1970 documentary, Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther. Set in a time of political and racial turmoil of the late 1960s, the film centers around Cleaver’s politically charged exile into regions of Algeria and Northern Africa. Here, Cleaver is documented as a doomed cultural missionary promoting his vision of a revolt against “Babylon,” his title for the United States.
Discussions around a violent revolution are led by Cleaver in both personal interviews and round table discussions with foreign supporters, an ongoing dialogue that takes up the first half of the film. At first confusing and sometimes frightening, Cleaver’s objectives concerning this “war on Babylon” remain unclear, and are challenged by his interviewer. The concepts become increasingly cryptic as Cleaver engages in heated discussions with non-English speaking minorities. The lack of subtitles fails to inform the viewer of the content.
However, these extreme implications become shockingly clear in the second part of the film. This notion of a radical revolution gains viewer sympathy through scenes of American politicians promoting racist propaganda and mass police brutality upon crowds, which are played over Cleaver’s narration. This portrayal of conservative white America juxtaposed against the voices of Black Panther members chanting, “power to the people!” becomes darkly comical in its presentation, as if these events are too absurd to have ever existed.
This feeling of disbelief is heightened by footage of Richard Nixon, who claims that he actually “likes black people,” and can’t seem to understand why he can’t gain “Afro-American” support. Cleaver repels this condescending statement, “I hate Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon is a dangerous man,” as Nixon’s image is followed by brutality so severe that this call for an armed struggle is justified as a means of self-defense rather than an extremist uprising.
The most compelling images are reserved for the last five minutes, when footage includes Black Panther members standing in resistance to police rifles pointing at their chests, wearing signs that say, “I am a man,” followed by even more violent brutality. One of the more devastating clips includes a man being burned alive in the street, and a crowd of people laughing toward the flames.
In light of this imagery, the Black Panther Party appears a righteous underdog rising against a corrupt government. The film’s message is clear through Cleaver’s parting words “I’m not going to accept it, I don’t have to accept it. I have a right to do something about it. And not only do I have a right, I have a duty.”
I highly recommend this film for anyone who enjoys political documentaries about the late 1960s or those interested in learning of the “people’s perspective” surrounding the Black Panther Movement as opposed to the perspective of politicians.
Jaclyn Evert is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and a videographer.
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