Sunday, March 28, 2010

41st & Central: a must-see documentary

I am just arriving home after my first viewing (of potentially three) of the long-overdue 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers. To say that I am overwhelmed is an understatement. I discovered this documentary via producer and activist Jasmyne Cannick's mention via Twitter. Upon further investigation, I happened upon the trailer, as well as the film's history. 41st & Central was first featured as part of the Pan African Film Festival. After selling out for three consective nights and winning "Audience Favorite", it has been revived due to demand for a limited showing March 26 to April 1 during their Encore Series.

The documentary features exclusive interviews with Black Panther Party leaders and members, and is the first of a series covering the lifespan of the Southern California Black Panther Chapter. I let my excitement be known publicly but, knowing my circle of friends and associates, expected to go alone. And I was completely fine with that.

I arrived during the previous screening's Q&A session with the film's producers and featured interviewees. Actual Black Panthers featured in the film and personally involved in the Party during its prominence answered questions from the audience and offered their thoughts and responses to the documentary. Having not seen the film nor experiencing the entire session, I chose not to jump in, but stood quietly, in awe of what I was witnessing. During my study of the Black Panther Party, I have seen footage and read passionate accounts by and about these same men and women before me. The Q&A was understandably emotional for all speakers, and highly informative for those in attendance. Though I didn't interject, as they exited, I shook a few hands and expressed my gratitude for being allowed to learn of their personal struggles.

I took note of the diversity of the audience. White couples, Black church groups, teenagers, and those old enough to have lived during that the time of the Party's run all came to learn about the L.A. Black Panthers. I only wish the same Q&A session was given after my screening, to allow these people to share our reactions as well. This did not, however, take away from my experience in the least bit.

Viewers are met with unflinching imagery from the film's opening frames. Whether in the context of a history class, HBO special, or an unapologetic documentary, viewing images of lynchings, cross-burnings, mutilated bodies, and violated women is never easy to watch. Filmmaker Gregory Everett used these strong images (and the emotions they incite) to create a deep idealogical connection to the subject matter at hand. It works. 41st & Central opens with the film's interviewees each offering their response to a question many of us could not produce a concrete answer to:


When did you first experience racism?

(Yes, think about that.)

What follows is cast members recounting tales of childhood violence, denial of affection, and death--all because of racism. That these men could so vividly recall being so strongly affected by ignorance and hate at such young ages is profound. Many of their families, like countless others of the time, left the south to avoid "Southern violence", in hopes of a new, free life out West. What they were met with was a new, more aggressive violence at the hands of the LAPD. One cast member even comments, "The Gestapo in Germany had nothing on what the LAPD has going in Los Angeles."

This shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. It was merely an example of the comfortable world in which we now live, compared to the constant hell of yesteryear, in search of equality.

Ericka Huggins speaks on the LAPD

There were numerous audible gasps (from myself, included) as footage of various clashes between early sociopolitical groups and the LAPD played out on screen. Throughout the film, a mix of pride, anger, and helplessness flowed through me in seeing these brave men and women discuss their pain, passion, and unhesitant defiance. Even outside of this film, one of the many things that drew me into learning the history of the Party is the unwavering dedication to the Cause. Without venturing too deeply into certain realms of political discourse, to hear several members recite the Mau Mau Oath ("...if I am ever tempted to abandon my people...if I be lying...if I fail to do what I have sworn...let this Oath kill me....") and commit to it with the same conviction now as they possessed then...was absolutely, stunningly beautiful.

Elaine Brown (my favorite cast member) on LA Party leader Bunchy Carter's poetry

Beyond the sensible editing and purposeful use of contemporary music and references, to see this often-mentioned "Black Unity" in action, spilling from the mouths of those who actually lived in the moment was a hell of a sight. As offsprings of the teachings of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party's use of THE LAW against those intended to uphold THE LAW was brilliant and commendable, to say the least. Contrary to popular belief, they were not founded with violent intentions, simply defending themselves against adversities and unjustice as no public organization existed to do this for them at the time. Brilliant. While some of their methodology is debatable, the fact is they took action to bring about change, doing more than any of the other intellectual, culturally millitant sects of the time.

While watching, I couldn't help but think about the astonishing difference between our time and theirs. The fact that, as Americans, many of us will (by choice, largely) never be faced with the reality of DYING (violently) for something we believe in, excluding the wars that we will never fully agree on. While there is much to fight for and about, the idea of being murdered unsuspectedly or even in the streets in large numbers (by the POLICE) is foreign to most of us. We, comparitively speaking, have it easy. Though there is much work to be done, but, being honest with ourselves, the most violent battles have apparently been fought. Before launching into any rant to the contrary, we must admit that our believes (however radical they may be) typically don't put us under the risk of federally-coordinated assassination or bombing. It's as simple as that. THEY struggled, fought, and got their point across, even if it meant giving one's life in the process.

I say all of that to say that this documentary was a blessing to view. As someone respectful of and enamored by the teachings of Malcolm and Huey, I greatly appreciated the candor of everyone of both "sides" of the struggle, even the retired FBI agents who further proved the conspiracy theories and plots to squash any attempts at Black unity.

Though it will only be shown locally until next week, the film's producers strongly urge viewers to request this film via college campuses, film festivals, and venues nationwide. As an example, one college program made viewing this documentary mandatory for all 600+ (mostly White) students. It's that valuable. I will be seeing it at least two more times with people I know will enjoy this as much as I did. If nothing else, I yearn for the discourse that this will undoubtedly prompt.

If in the Los Angeles area, check the Pan African Film Festival website for showtimes. For more info on the filmaker and cast, view the 41st & Central website, HERE.


~colored boy

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