“We want to make the rules, the theory”
July 13, 2014 4:44 PM Subscribe
In 1968, Agnès Varda was living in Los Angeles with her husband, director Jacques Demy, who was there to begin filming his first Hollywood film, Model Shop (1969).
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Although initially hesitant about living in the United States, the couple quickly became caught up in the wave of dissent sweeping the country in the late 1960s. Indeed, amid the finger pointing in France about the perceived failure of the events of May ’68 to bring about revolution, many members of the French intelligentsia looked across the Atlantic for alternative models for political change. Varda became part of a growing contingent of French artists and intellectuals, including sociologists Edgar Morin and Jean-François Revel, and writer Jean Genet, who were attracted to the ways in which cultural revolt, social criticism and political contestation were intertwined in the United States. These French thinkers were attracted to the expansiveness and creativity of the American counterculture as opposed to the political deadlock that many believed was the undoing of the events surrounding May ’68. A revolt against American hegemony was taking place within the United States itself, and many leftist French thinkers were enthralled.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) embodied this new mixture of cultural and political rebellion. Varda would often travel from Los Angeles to Oakland, filming Black Panther meetings and demonstrations with a 16mm camera borrowed from student activists at the University of California, Berkeley. The resulting documentary, Black Panthers (1968), captures the complexity of the Party, with its blend of personal, domestic and international politics. The film opens with the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” alongside footage from a rally to free Huey Newton, the co-founder and Minister of Defense of the BPP, who was in jail for the killing of Oakland police officer John Frey following a shoot-out after being pulled over in traffic. Varda’s camera focuses on the energy of the crowd – particularly the young children – clapping and dancing as the singer sings, “We didn’t come here on our free will/Our people was sold…. The truth about the whole thing, children, never been told.” He continues: “You got to get that starch and iron out of yo’ hair/Wigs and straightenin’ combs ain’t gonna get you nowhere.” Varda, in an off-screen voiceover, explains to her French audience: “This is neither a picnic nor a party in Oakland. It’s a political rally organized by the Black Panthers – black activists who are getting ready for the revolution.”
Agnès Varda, Black Panthers (1968)