A War (Krigen), 2015, Dir: Tobias Lindholm

Murdered children in Afghanistan

Murdered children in Afghanistan

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Even though the invasion and subsequent war in Afghanistan has been a total strategic disaster, now turning into a seemingly never-ending conflict, there hasn’t been a shortage of films, both fictional and documentary, about this foreign involvement. The situation was very different following the US invasion of Vietnam where Hollywood took years to be able to address the shameful defeat of the most powerful nation on Earth. (The trouble is that this preparedness to look at the open wounds doesn’t seem to have led to any significant reluctance to get involved in foreign wars, either on the side of the politicians or the public of the respective countries.) The most recent in this series of films is A War – Krigen, directed by Tobias Lindholm.

One of the possible reasons for this spate of soul-searching is the advance in photographic technology. In the 1970s and 80s it wasn’t easy to make a film without a huge amount of resources. Today films can be, and have been, made on smart phones and light weight, yet high quality digital video cameras. It is from this standpoint that has made ‘A War’, a reasonably low-budget film produced from a relatively small country, possible.

This is a film from the Danish perspective. Previous films have looked at the situation from the viewpoint of the two major players in the debacle, the Americans and the British, so it’s slightly refreshing to see how another, junior partner, in this coalition of hypocrisy and double-talk sees as its role on the world stage.

(Here it should be mentioned that the Afghans themselves are still either the ‘enemy’ or the victims. No one has sought to look at the almost 15-year-old war from the perspective of those who have been on the receiving end of all the billions of pounds worth of bullets, air strikes and missiles. But then we still haven’t seen a film that concentrates on the plight of the Vietnamese in their struggle against American Imperialism.)

Although the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, under the name of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, was supposed to bring a better life to the inhabitants there’s no indication at all that there have been any real positive gains for the local populace. The Taliban haven’t been defeated, far from it. Recent information indicates they seem to be getting more powerful day by day as the ordinary Afghan peasant lives under the oppression and corruption of the ‘democratically elected’ government and its US/UK trained puppet army. So-called ‘collateral damage’ means that innocent people are daily at risk of being killed following their normal routine in order to survive. The cultivation of the heroine poppy has resumed with a vengeance resulting in the reappearance of drug lords, together with the inevitable violence and mayhem following such a trade (which had been virtually eliminated under the Taliban, as recognised by the United Nations only a matter of weeks before the invasion of the country in 2001) and tribal War Lords control huge swathes of the country.

‘A War – Krigen’ takes place in 2003 when it could be argued (at least by the occupying forces, not by me) that there was a chance of changing things for the better, that the armed forces from so many countries, a grand coalition – so as to spread the blame if not the glory – could still say, without a hint of irony, that they were there for the people of Afghanistan. But they were only there if it meant that casualties on the invading forces’ side were at an absolute minimum.

These Danish soldiers whoop and holler at the death of a ‘terrorist’ but go into mental melt down when one of their own is injured – similar scenarios having also been depicted in previous fictional or documentary films about the war. Behind this is the mindset and thinking of the invading powers that because they have ‘right’ on their side they are, or, at least, should be, invincible. They have the technology, the weapons, the protection, the back up (both in terms of military intelligence and medical resources), that they are the ‘good guys’ – so how can they lose?

This has been the thinking of the imperialist countries in all the wars, ‘insurgencies’, ’emergencies’ and uprisings they have been involved in since the end of the Second World War. They have the God-given right to do what they so chose in whatever part of the world they chose to do it and if anyone in those countries opposes their invasion they are immediately branded as being insurgents and terrorists (and other descriptions with negative and racist connotations) so therefore their lives are of no value and expendable. This way of looking at the local population resulted in the countless massacres committed by these forces of ‘democracy and freedom’ that was epitomised by the murderous attack on the Vietnamese villages around My Lai in March 1967.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Although, I suppose, ever since warfare (even before anyone could enunciate the term, in whatever language) began the aim was to inflict the heaviest casualties on the enemy with the least to yourselves. However, in any conflict it would be ludicrous to expect that you can go up against an enemy and not sustain casualties. Granted the British have not been that good at the useless throwing away of young lives, witness the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ in October 1854 during the Crimean War and the countless examples of huge casualties, with little or no territorial gain, on the Western Front in the War of 1914-19.

But following on from the imperialist arrogance is an idea that war is in some manner ‘safe’. If we are fighting ‘evil’ when right is on our side, together with God, less body bags will be needed. Politicians who start these wars want to perpetuate such a fallacy as it allows them to convince the majority of unthinking people that the costs of war are not that great, that the days of high casualties are a thing of the past.

This led to the crazy and bizarre situation that developed around the returning bodies from recent wars in the Middle East which arrived at the Royal Air Force base at Lyneham in Wiltshire in the South West of the UK. The parading of the coffins through the near-by town of Wootton Bassett, which at first was seen as a ‘proud’ nation honouring those who had died ‘to keep us safe’ became a political and military embarrassment. Making a big show on a few occasions was politically advantageous to the State but when it was a regular event it only went to show that the war wasn’t going the way the aggressors thought it would. One senior military officer even stated that such public displays of ‘grief’ were counter-productive as war will invariably mean death and it was dangerous to the State if death was fetishised.

It is by putting this idea of the welfare of the injured to the fore that leads the Danish officer (who, in normal circumstances, shouldn’t have been on the front line at all anyway) to call in air support to attack and destroy a compound from where he ‘thinks’ the Taliban might be firing. The consequence of this is that a number of civilians, including children, end up being killed or wounded. For this he is recalled to Denmark to face a legal inquiry.

This might be considered a genuine approach to dealing with the reasons for civilian casualties, especially when the issue is seen through the ‘liberal’ eyes of a Scandinavian country – although that liberalism is becoming somewhat tarnished with some of the more draconian laws that have been passed as a response to the increase in the number of migrants arriving in Europe in the last year or so. But by placing the incident in ‘the heat of war’ the commander has a get out, whether he is telling the truth or not.

In the fifteen years of the foreign occupation the majority of the casualties have been civilians and most of them were killed by the occupying forces. The obscene term ‘collateral damage’ (coined by the Americans around 1968, in relation to possible outcomes of a nuclear conflict but then used in their war of aggression against the Vietnamese people) is now so commonly used that people in general don’t seem to baulk at the seriousness of the consequences of military action on the local populace. We can also see the hypocrisy of the US and other ‘western’ countries when a similar situation is indeed a crime when committed by others, e.g., the Russians in Syria in 2016, but is OK if committed by them in any theatre of war. We should also remember that the US refuses to allow any of their personnel to be committed for any sort of war crimes, even when one of their soldiers leaves a base, at night, twice, and goes on a killing spree, randomly murdering people in their beds.

Cinema has rarely dealt with the issue of civilian deaths in the many wars since 1945, after which year civilians were no longer the ‘rear’ but the forefront of any conflict. This was even more so in those situations where the fighters were guerillas who lived amongst and came from the people. Taking Chairman Mao’s dictum that the guerillas should be ‘like fish swimming in water’ of the populace the reactionary forces sought to drain the rivers and lakes. Whereas ‘A War’ fudges this issue of civilian deaths (and gets publicity owing to it being nominated for an Academy Award) a film that addressed the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ‘Good Kill’ (2014), was almost totally ignored.

Being a ‘liberal’ country the case of the civilian deaths is investigated by the Danish military authorities and the commander called back home to face a court of inquiry. An interesting aspect of this inquiry was the depiction of the Danish court process itself, not just for this fictional case but for anyone who has to face ‘justice’ in that country. The informality makes the process much less intimidating than it is in a British or American setting and gives the impression, at least, that the person on trial is innocent until proven guilty. This was even down to using the given name rather than the surname of the accused.

Although the viewer knows that the commander is guilty we have to wait to see if this guilt will be proven in an ‘impartial’ inquiry. Witness after witness gives evidence that seems to place another nail in the commander’s coffin until one witness states, categorically, that he ‘knew’ there was concrete evidence for the commander to call in the air strike, the consequences of which were the civilian deaths. This evidence gets the officer off.

Now this particular development introduces interesting aspects of the military of capitalist and imperialist countries. If we can imagine that this situation is real and were to go into the future following this trial and ask ourselves who would be more trusted by his comrades, those who told the truth or the liar, we would have to say the liar. That’s because the very structure of capitalist armed forces is based upon a small group of people having absolute faith in the idea that those around each individual will be supported, in many ways unquestioningly, by the others in his group.

In the situation presented to us in this film how could anyone have such trust in a person who was prepared to see the conviction of one of their own, albeit a senior officer? The countless cases of those soldiers accused of crimes in the invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the 21st century, with none of them ending up being ‘proven’, is testimony to the closed nature of such groups of killers. It’s exactly the same situation amongst the police where there’s an unwritten code of practice in which the truth is just far too inconvenient.

There is another consequence of these constant invasions and wars and this is the effect that the killing process has on those very well supported, very well supplied and very well armed soldiers. This is demonstrated in a scene early in the film.

A situation arises where one of the members of the patrol is so traumatised by one of his comrades stepping on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that he virtually breaks down and refuses to go on patrol. Being a ‘liberal’ country the Danish commander (who establishes his credentials as caring and concerned about those under his command) allows him to be reassigned to base duties until he can get his act together. Here we are presented with the issue of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Now in 2003 it could have been possible to say that those who were in the armies of the imperialist invaders weren’t aware of the consequences of what they were doing. I say ‘could’ rather than ‘would’ as I would have thought that anyone who is prepared to be taught how to use instruments whose only purpose is to kill should understand that death was going to be the consequence of those instruments being used. The hope is that the deaths would be ‘theirs’ but, from time to time, it could be ‘ours’. So why the surprise? Despite how they might be presented at times in the past armies are killing machines, they are not an arm of the social services.

It’s also important to remember that all the armies from all the countries that have been part of a US led ‘coalition’ are composed of volunteers. They are not conscripts as they were in the wars in Korea or Vietnam. These men and women had, and still do, make a conscious decision to enlist. I don’t know why they are surprised when they are confronted with the realities of war. Are they so stupid that they think the real thing is like the computer games that might have convinced them to join up in the first place? That once someone is killed all they have to do is reboot and they will come alive again?

If that’s valid for 2003 how much more valid is it for 2016? Those who are joining these armies now were only toddlers when these 21st century wars of aggression started and since the ‘war of terrorism without end’ began. If they watch the news and think they want to be like John Wayne (who never fired a bullet against a real enemy and, therefore, never had to face danger himself, unlike many in Hollywood, either the actors or scriptwriters he was party to ostracising at the time of (HUAC) the House Un-American Activities Committee – see the film ‘Trumbo’ for a good take on Wayne’s ‘patriotism’) don’t they also know that PTSD is a part of these wars? So now that issue is becoming a drain of health services, a problem to the societies to which they return yet still not an issue that makes people address the validity of such wars in the first place. And, most importantly of all in this, the mental welfare of the men, women and children who are on the receiving end of all these billions of pounds worth of munitions is not considered at all. The wars nominally being fought for their well-being and future don’t take their well-being and future into account.

Finally, other films addressing the war in Afghanistan have almost exclusively concentrated on the soldiers in the country itself, their home lives only considered as an aside, being part of banter amongst the soldiers, referenced by telephone/Skype conversations with family members or by images of the ‘life they left behind’ on the walls of their barracks. In ‘A War’ not only do we get the court room scenes back in Denmark we also get an indication of the problems that can occur within the family as a consequence of the father being away for such a long time.

But here we have another contradiction. We are talking about 2003, a couple of years after the ‘war on terror’ began. Presumably the wife of the commander married, and had children, with a man who was in the military but then he was only playing at being a soldier, not killing other people and not being put in danger. Things start to fall apart when he is doing the job he signed up for many years before and for which he is being paid. So why this shock when matters develop so that he actually does what he was trained to do? Why are so many parents and families proud of their sons and daughters dressed in their smart uniforms at their coming out parades not aware what they could face in the future? Why is it always someone else’s fault if they should get killed or injured in a foreign country? Why do so many people want to claim victim status? If you make a conscious decision to go to another country and kill its people live (or die) with the consequences.

If Denmark is not exactly an imperialist nation at present it is certainly there to support the interests of the most aggressive and powerful imperialist nation at the moment, that is the USA. NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) exists to dance to the tune that the US decides to play. Huge resources, from all the countries in the organisation, are directed towards this end. As the grip of capitalism and imperialism weakens the necessity for these national forces to get involved in international conflicts has increased – and this will be even more so in the foreseeable future.

Imperialism appears to be strong because it seems to have the ability to respond in any part of the world with massive amounts of force. But can this really be seen as a success for imperialism? In Afghanistan the US has been involved in the longest war in the country’s history – and it’s not fully disengaged yet. In 2001 GW Bush declared the ‘war on terror’ would go on as long as it takes and in the middle of February 2016 the French Prime Minister said that ‘hyper-terrorism (whatever that might be) is here to stay’. So the imperialist powers have already admitted that all the invasions of the 21st century have not achieved, in any sense whatsoever, the goals they set themselves 15 years ago.

So, as far as imperialism is concerned, we are in a more dangerous situation than the world was at even the height of the ‘Cold War’. The threat of nuclear extinction from the Soviet Union has been replaced by an enemy that hates what the west represents in a way never seen before. In the past those people who had suffered at the hands of rapacious and murderous imperialism, from the Americas through to Africa and on to Asia have, in some ways, ‘forgiven’ the oppressors or, at least, pushed the events of the past to the back of their minds. Not now. Those groups whose foundation goes back to the times of anti-Communism in Afghanistan are not thanking their progenitor. Just the opposite. The child hates the father in a way not before seen in modern times. The chickens have truly come home to roost.

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010/11 has changed the situation in the countries were it took place not one iota. Whatever the optimism and enthusiasm that existed over that period of time some of the faces at the top might have changed but substantially the situation for the vast majority of the population remains the same. Worse than that, some of those countries which underwent a popular uprising are even more aggressive, both nationally and internationally, as they were prior to 2010, Turkey being a case in point.

It’s true that imperialism has succeeded in destroying those functioning societies that were a potential threat to its interests in the region, in the case of Iraq, Libya and Syria, but at what cost to the people? Those once strong militarily countries whose leaders were from time to time courted by the ‘west’ when it suited, are now in chaos with the consequences beginning to have an effect on Europe as more and more refugees seek sanctuary in a part of the world that caused the problem in the first place.

But the populations of the countries who have gave birth to, then incubated this hatred so that it has grown into a myriad of western value hating groups in an increasing number of countries throughout the world, don’t seem to realise that they are part of the problem themselves. Their acquiescence in the face of the jingoism and sabre rattling of their ‘democratically’ elected governments is forgotten. The ones who are fundamentally the cause of the problem claim victim status. Those killed in acts by these ‘fundamentalist’ groups are described as ‘innocents’ yet those civilians killed in drone attacks, air raids or just because they were in the wrong place at the time of a military operation are dismissed as being merely ‘collateral damage’ and all the resources of the invading forces is put into sanitising and excusing those responsible. The lives of an Afghani or an Iraqi is considered of lower value to that of a European. Is it any wonder that people are angry?

‘A War’ is not, by any means, the best film about the invasion of Afghanistan or any other wars that are taking place at the moment (or even of those to come) but it does offer the opportunity for people to look at their own complicity and hypocrisy if they care to do so. I fear, as has been the case in all the other imperialist attempts to maintain or increase their influence in the past, most people will just hope that the problem will go away. It might have quietened down in the past but the result is unlikely to be the same in the present or the future. One day people are going to have to make a decision to challenge the status quo otherwise this war really will go on forever.

Joy 2015, Dir: David O Russell

New Miracle Mop

New Miracle Mop

Warning: Might contain a couple of small spoilers!

The only possible joy you can get out of this dire film is from the title. I just can’t imagine for what qualities this film is being heralded as a celebration of a ‘successful’ woman.

All the characters are odious, ignorant, selfish, loathsome and self-serving. We have a family of four generations and there doesn’t seem to be one iota of real love or respect between any of them. We are told (by the narrator) that Joy and her divorced husband are the best of friends, but we don’t really get any feel of that from what we see on the screen – this is a case of tell don’t show.

This is the type of family where you would be afraid to turn your back, their being so many knives out one would bound to end up in your back.

The eponymous character walks through all this in an almost catatonic state. She has sacrificed her future for others (compounded by a disastrous marriage which might have produced children but even when on screen they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Just in case we’re not clear that she is a put upon drudge, her good nature being abused by all around her, when in a difficult domestic situation she is shown with spilt food, vomit and any other detritus that’s supposed to be the consequence of bringing up young children.

Her principal invention was a mop. Now, is this a problem with American housewives (obviously at the time the film is set, late 80s/early 90’s men wouldn’t be regularly mopping the kitchen) or generally throughout the world? She gets her inspiration from ‘having’ to squeeze out a mop with her hands after a glass had been smashed but instead of trying to pick up as much glass as possible, then attacking the liquid she tries to collect both glass and liquid at the same time meaning she has to squeeze cotton full of glass shards and cutting her hands in the process. Are people really that stupid? And wasn’t the mop bucket invented by the 1990s?

The invention of this revolutionary mop is her contribution to ‘female liberation’ .

But it’s one thing to invent something, it’s another to get it sold. Her breakthrough comes when she, herself, stands in front of the camera of a TV shopping channel and promotes the virtues of her baby. But the scenes at the studio were likewise ludicrous. The initial attempt, using a so-called ‘professional’ presenter is sabotaged as he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Her own attempt is close to disaster when she appears like a rabbit caught in the headlights when the cameras roll. Is that credible? Would such a commercial broadcasting company put people on live television without adequate preparation? Did Jennifer Lawrence herself just turn up on the set of her first film without a screen test? Does the director consider us that stupid? (Presumably, the answer is yes.)

After yet another scene where her abilities are being disparaged by her family instead of standing up for herself and arguing back she meekly leaves the building. This being the United States of America she then asks for the loan of a pump shotgun (from a conveniently placed, open air firing range) and then kills a few bottles. She would have been better served, and it would have made a much better and more interesting film, if she had returned to the office and used it on her family.

At a time when there are (almost invariably not to be unimplemented) measures talked about gun control in the US we are here given a demonstration where the release of frustration through the use of a hand-held killing machine is the way to achieve the ‘American Dream’.

After yet another scene where the world seems to be against her (and especially her odious family) she is shown, for the first time, actually doing something rather than just acting as a doormat or a mouse. And how do we know she is now on the warpath? She perpetrates the (seemingly) greatest crime a woman can do to herself – she cuts her long girly tresses.

Then things get worse. She travels half way across the country, arranges to meet someone she believes has cheated and defrauded her in an empty room in a cheap hotel, whose first words to her are that she doesn’t know who he is and whether he has come to eliminate someone who is becoming a nuisance, but then he just caves in to her threat to expose him. Not only that he offers to give her a more money to placate her anger. That scene was absolutely ridiculous. The whole build up to it was ridiculous.

Throughout we are bombarded by trite, home spun philosophy about achieving potential, never giving in, examples of those who had lived the ‘American Dream’, that all are equal in America, that anyone can achieve success, regardless of class or colour. On and on it went. Perhaps instead of telling the viewer of the film they should have said so to those who are queuing outside food banks throughout the benighted United States.

If all this isn’t enough when we get to the end and hear how she continued to support her despicable family, even though they tried to rob her (yet again), we are subjected to her being patronising to a young, black, female inventor and distributing her largess. And to remind us (as if we need reminding) that she came from humble beginnings we see her finger her scraps of paper from her childhood. It was enough to make my skin creep.

And whose idea was it to give us a narrator who is literally telling the story from beyond the grave?

Finally, what has happened to that coterie of fine American actors who came on our screens in the 1970s? Robert de Niro is in this film and he was an embarrassment. If he has to continue to appear on the big screen perhaps he should be doing what a couple of his contemporaries, i.e., Pacino and Keitel, are now doing. Just make adverts where bad acting is a bonus and live on the glories of the past.

For reasons that are beyond me this film is up for nominations in the upcoming awards season (and has already been nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress – Musical or Comedy, in the 2016 Golden Globe Awards). It might well win (you can’t blame the Academy, for example, for taste). Win or lose Lawrence will probably be able to command even more money than she does at the moment for the roles she will take on. She might not get as much as the men but will still earn more than 99% of the world’s population, let alone those in the acting profession worldwide. We can only hope that with some of those earnings she buys her Mexican maid (probably on minimum wage) a new mop.


The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution

Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

Considering it’s almost 50 years since they were formed (and almost 40 years since they all but disappeared off the scene) it was about time that someone made a documentary of an organisation, and the mass mobilisation it encouraged, that was such a dominant force in national politics in the United States for the latter half of the 60s. Whether the Black Panthers were actually the vanguard of the revolution is another matter but, at least, for a short time it shock the American establishment (and a lot of white people) to the core for a short time. This mobilisation of significant numbers of young black men and women coming at the same time as the anti-Vietnam War movement would have caused some to think that the revolution was just around the corner.

In some ways the two struggles had close connections. American imperialism was attempting to maintain oppression of the poor in South East Asia whilst in the home of the beast the black population were suffering an oppression little different from antebellum days and violence against black citizens was an everyday occurrence and deeply ‘institutionalised’ – to use a term that became current in the 21st century.

Watching (after so many years) the images of indiscriminate beatings by the police against black people, of all ages but predominantly of the young – beat them whilst young to frighten them for the rest of their lives – it’s no wonder that the beginnings of what became the Black Panther Party was predicated upon self-defence. A loophole in local ordinances in Oakland, California, meant that – as long as the weapons were carried openly – young black men could attend and ‘observe’ those incidences when their brothers and sisters were being abused by the police. One of the pertinent comments in the film here was how the whites felt intimidated (even thought the forces of the state were on ‘their’ side) – how much more must the black population must have felt when this was a situation they lived through everyday, everywhere, all of their lives.

It was no surprise that such a movement attracted many who had previously considered themselves marginalised. And the movement grew, fast, perhaps too fast. And this was accepted by those in the ‘leadership’ at the time and still around today. There was no control, no selection process, no vetting, no monitoring of those who wanted to join the movement, so no one really knew what their motives were. (As I write this I’m reminded of another, recent documentary, this time about efforts to fight against the drug cartels in Mexico (‘Cartel Land’) which also had a problem of being able to identify ‘which side were some of the members really on’?)

But if the honest people in the Black Panther Party (BPP) didn’t know what they were doing the state, especially in the form of J Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), knew exactly what was on the cards. This new, mass movement potentially had the ability to shake the racist state to its foundations.

Hoover sent out instructions that this organisation had to be destroyed and that any tactics could be employed. Infiltration and the use of informers and traitors (easily recruited when false charges – or even real but minor charges – could incur long, long times inside) was considered to be the best means to achieve this and the tactic became so successful that at times the BPP members didn’t know who to trust. A (white) defence lawyer in the case of the New York 21 – framed for dozens of charges, all of which were thrown out after months of incarceration and a trail lasting weeks – even asked, in court, if the FBI hadn’t actually created the BPP in the first place.

And no one should be surprised about that. If movements against the capitalist state don’t have a clear view of where they are going the capitalist state always does – it will do anything whatsoever to maintain that social system, and in the process will lie, misinform, create confusion, use intimidation, spend whatever it might cost (the money of the people being used against the people!), kill if needs be.

The problem is that social movements such as the Black Panthers have never realised and accepted this truth, a truth established centuries ago, and thus continue to make the same mistakes of those in the past, never seeming to learn from past mistakes and ending up either being ground down or totally destroyed. If this film has anything to offer, other than a reminder to those of us around at the time and as an educational tool for the young, it’s the reinforcement of the idea that we must learn from, and understand, history.

Hoover did the job he was paid to do. Contemptible as he was as a human being he knew where his interests lay. There’s no point in arguing that it wasn’t fair, that the FBI was doing something illegal, it’s the winners of the war who decide on the justice or legality of actions taken during that war.

The lack of a real programme (as opposed to a list of ‘demands’) from the start meant that the BPP moved from self-defence to social welfare (in the provision of breakfast clubs for school children, free health clinics, food banks, etc., those basic welfare measures that any decent state would provide for its least well off) to eventually getting involved in the electoral system that perpetuates the system of oppression in the first place – the argument being if you can’t challenge the state then try to ‘reform’ it from within. How many have been bought off by that idea in the past and how many to be bought off in the future?

The foremost representatives of the BPP in the early years were Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. These became the public voice of the organisation and the black jacketed, black beret wearing, pump-shotgun toting young black men, wearing dark glasses, became the poster boys of the ‘revolution’ – images that anyone old enough at the time will remember. However, one of the surprising pieces of information (for me) that came out in the film was that by the end of the 1970s the majority of its membership were young women. A few spoke for the party but the majority, if in the media at all, were depicted due to their hair and dress choices rather than for anything they might have to say. It seems to have been accepted that if the BPP wanted to change certain aspects of the society in which they lived misogyny was not one of them – the Black Panthers were not in the forefront of female liberation.

Black Panther Women

Black Panther Women

As one of the survivors said in the documentary they were young, idealist and enthusiastic. Those attributes were at the same time positive and negative and had an impact on what they did and how the organisation developed – or not.

Having no uniting idea of what to do the party went from dealing with one crisis to another, surviving one attack to the next one, going from setback to setback. For most of its existence it appeared to be like a rudderless ship, just going where the forces of nature took it, without direction, without destination, without a goal. It’s all very well for people to stand up against the oppression and exploitation under which they live but unless they know what they are fighting for (rather than merely knowing what they are fighting against) any movement will eventually run out of steam.

(We have seen examples of this in recent years, e.g., the anti-City of London/Wall Street, anti-austerity movements throughout the capitalist countries and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in many of the countries of Northern Africa. If you have no viable alternative to offer to the people then the old state will re-take the positions of power that might have been under threat for a very short period of time – is austerity less austere in countries such as the UK? In which Arab country are the vast majority of people better off now than they were prior to the mass mobilisations of 2011?)

Because the party had no organisation what developed was a cult of leadership. As the state stepped up its efforts to destroy the party first Newton and then Seale were imprisoned. Cleaver ran away to Algeria where he set up the international section of the party. Although the arrests of the leaders, and the campaigns for their release were beneficial in gaining publicity for the BPP, and also an increase in its membership, this only exacerbated the lack of unity rather than strengthening the group. People joined but they didn’t really know what they were joining.

Before Newton was imprisoned he posed as some modern-day African tribal leader, an image which appeared everywhere at the time, and the campaign to release him almost certainly had the effect of reinforcing his own individual importance in the movement on his release. He later expelled all and sundry, seemingly on a personal whim and basing his decision on nothing other than his own criteria and without reference to any others still in the dwindling organisation. Drugs fuelled his paranoia and megalomania and to those around him just before his death he was considered clinically insane.

Huey Newton

Huey Newton

Cleaver took the opportunity to get out of the country when a warrant for his arrest was issued and subsequently led the international section of the party, first in Cuba and then, on a more permanent basis in Algeria. He was then invited to countries that were attempting to construct socialism (such as China, North Vietnam and North Korea) giving him a lot of personal credibility but it’s uncertain what he really had to offer. When the existence of the People’s Republic of China wasn’t officially recognised and whilst B52s were blanket bombing Hanoi from miles up in the sky there was a PR reason for those two countries to align themselves with a movement that could possibly destabilise the United States – but surely they must have known that they were dealing with dilettantes? (Cleaver was to become a born again Christian in the 1980s and even supported Ronald Reagan for President – when Reagan had been governor of California when the BPP was started there in reaction to the violence of the state’s law enforcement against the black population.)

Seale seemed less of a loose cannon but wasn’t able to take the organisation any further despite this. In 1969 he came to world-wide fame when, because he refused to stop interrupting proceedings in the trial of the Chicago 8 (following massive demonstrations around the Democratic Party Convention of the previous year) he was ordered to be tied to his chair and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman. He was later sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for 16 charges of contempt of court (3 months each) after the same judge ordered that he be ‘severed’ (i.e., no further proceedings to be taken against him on the charge of conspiracy) from the original charge – so he was found in contempt of a court where he shouldn’t have been in the first place. The American judicial system not considering that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way it was being used against the people of the country. On release from prison Seale ran for mayor of Oakland (really the home base and place of origin of the Black Panthers). He got close to victory, but not close enough, and demonstrated the basic flaw within the organisation. You can use the word ‘revolution’ but if you don’t know what it means, and what it entails, you will become nothing more than a reformist.

Bobby Seale in court

Bobby Seale in court

Those involved at the time state the lack of proper leadership that could hold the organisation together as being a problem but none of them, in the film, were able to come up with a solution or even, in the 1970s, give any indication what the party was doing to overcome these perceived weaknesses. All they could see as a solution was the slotting into the vacant space left by the previous leadership of Fred Hampton. However, instead of looking at past failings and trying to follow a more ideological and structured development of the party he just carried on with what had become a culture of the ‘cult of the personality’. Hoover feared the rise of a ‘messiah’, a charismatic leader that could overcome the schisms within the BPP, for many at the time Hampton was that ‘messiah’ – but only for a short period of time, the state were going to see to that.

Hampton is shown where he got an audience to repeat, time and time again, the phrase, ‘I am …. a revolutionary’. That’s all very well and good and it must have created a good atmosphere in meetings of people who considered themselves alienated and disenfranchised within the general society of the United States – but it did nothing other than that. Through all the problems the BPP had gone through in its relatively short existence there was never a consideration that, perhaps, what they had been doing had faults and instead of looking at those mistakes and trying not to repeat them they just went on along the same road.

They also, despite innumerable lessons to the contrary, never understood to what extent the State would go to ensure that they wouldn’t even achieve a modicum of success. In the early hours of the 4th December, 1969, in a flat in Chicago, the US State carried out what can only be described as an assassination of Fred Hampton.

William O’Neal, a FBI stooge and informer, had achieved the position of being Hampton’s bodyguard. He was so close to the leadership and had such freedom to move around that he was able to gather information so accurate that the FBI were able to recreate a life-size mock-up of the flat so they were as familiar with the layout of the apartment as those staying there. O’Neal also spiked a drink that Hampton took late the night before so that when the place was raided in a pre-dawn raid he wasn’t aware of anything.

As is not unusual in these circumstances the FBI stated they were only defending themselves but all indicators are that only one shot was fired by any of the Black Panthers – and that was an impulse shot by the Panther on security duty in his death throes. The apartment was riddled with bullet holes and two bullets were put into Hampton’s head at close range. Arresting all the others that survived the attack under spurious charges (later dropped) meant that the FBI was in total control of the situation.

Lie, stonewall and generally create a confused situation was the tactic. What the truth was, and whether it came out or not is not important as long as it happens at some time in the indeterminate future. It wasn’t until 1982 that compensation was paid out by the state, an implied admission of guilt, but by that time the heyday of the Black Panther Movement was long a thing of the past.

Soon after this there was a shoot out in the Oakland, where the Panthers started and always had their largest support. One of the best parts of the film was when one of those Panthers trapped in the building, running out of ammunition and totally surrounded with no way of escape, felt for the first time in his life, totally free, ‘truly alive’. All those that had survived the shoot out were convinced they would be summarily executed if they went outside (they weren’t, almost certainly due to the large media presence and with everything being broadcast live throughout the country). So they had nothing to lose, they had arrived at a time when they had nothing to lose but their chains, a situation which took all the years of oppression off their shoulders.

The BPP existed after this but everything was to go downhill from then on. Those who joined drifted away, either because of fear or the realisation that as they were organised at that time the BPP couldn’t really offer any alternative to the traditional, system orientated parties and organisations.

The Black Panthers as an organisation never accepted, or even realised, the importance of Lenin’s statement in ‘What is to be Done?‘, possible his most important work on party building that ‘Without revolutionary ideology there is no revolutionary movement’. Many wore Mao badges on their berets but didn’t take on board any of Mao’s thinking, any of Mao’s philosophy, strategy and tactics, any of Mao’s experiences of fighting a revolutionary war.

The spur that caused the formation of the Black Panthers was the treatment of black people at the hands of the state, the beatings and the killings, is still endemic within American society to this day. Together with any sense of justice. The list gets bigger all the time, whatever a (black) President promises. From the killing of Taryvon Martin by a so-called security guard, to the recent killings and the resultant demonstrations and mini-riots in Ferguson, St Louis, following the shooting of Michael Brown, to the murder of Oscar Grant (later made into a feature film, ‘Fruitvale Station‘), and other abuses by police officers throughout the United States – often captured on video at the time – all these incidents all go to show that nothing has really changed in the last 50 years.

Not a time for the revival of the Black Panthers but perhaps a time to reassess both the positive and negative experience of those heady days of the 60s and this film can be part of that discussion.