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1968 aux Etats-Unis

Agnès Varda: filming the Black Panthers's Struggle

Agnès Varda : filmer la lutte des Black Panthers
Agnès Varda: filmar la lucha de los Black Panthers
Agnès Varda: Filmar a Luta dos Panteras Negras
Delphine Letort


Agnès Varda a réalisé deux documentaires sur le mouvement des Black Panthers en 1968. Huey plonge dans l’atmosphère militante de la campagne « Libérez Huey » tandis que Black Panthers se concentre sur l’impact du parti à un niveau local dans la communauté afro-américaine d’Oakland. Basés sur sa propre expérience en Californie où elle vivait en 1968, les deux films nous font découvrir la culture des « panthères noires ». Cet article compare la démarche esthétique et politique des deux documentaires : du mode d’observation adopté dans Huey au mode d’exposition qui prévaut dans Black Panthers, la réalisatrice s’attache à démystifier le portrait des panthères et la menace qu’elles incarnèrent dans les médias. A travers une étude détaillée des films de Varda, nous nous efforcerons de mettre en lumière les stratégies politiques théâtrales développées par les Panthères et mises en avant dans les documentaires en contrepoint d’un discours historiographique plus récent, qui souligne les inégalités de genre à l’intérieur du parti.

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  • 1 Huey can be watched online at <> and B (...)
  • 2 Illustrating this confusion is the English page of Wikipedia, which presents Huey as the English tr (...)

1Agnès Varda was living in California when the Black Panthers became everyday headlines after their leader was arrested for allegedly killing a policeman on October 28, 1967. Huey P. Newton’s trial was still ongoing in 1968, which prompted Varda to direct two nonfiction short films about the demonstrations organized in his support. Huey (31 minutes) captures the militant atmosphere of the “free Huey” campaign, focusing on the rally organized on February 17th, 1968, to celebrate imprisoned Huey P. Newton’s twenty-second birthday whereas Black Panthers (26 minutes) delves into the culture of the Party by investigating into the local dynamics of its Oakland branch.1 Quite interestingly, the two films have generated a confusion which more often than not has passed unnoticed in Agnès Varda’s filmography: Huey and Black Panthers are mistakenly referred to as the French and English versions of the same film although they encompass two distinct projects.2 Huey’s raw black and white footage strives to convey an inside view of the Black Panther Party as Varda attended the 1968 rally in an attempt to better understand the ideological underpinning of the movement whereas Black Panthers’ colored images highlight the Party’s everyday activities, enhancing the role of African American women engaged in the fight for collective rights in the police-targeted communities. While Huey’s film discourse relies on editing only, Black Panthers includes an explanatory voice-over giving informative details and framing the Panthers’ project in a sympathetic light.

2This article interrogates the documentary ethics of these two short films through an analysis of the filmmaker’s gaze at the Panthers, which spotlights the politics of representation the activists themselves explored as a tool of self-empowerment. Central to their political message was the notion of self-representation, which was best signified by the slogan that opens Black Panthers. Varda draws attention to the motto which epitomizes the black power message of the Panthers: the camera pans slowly to the right, prompting the viewers to read the words painted on a sign hanging above the front window of the Oakland Panthers’ office through the director’s lens–“Black is honest and beautiful.” Although Varda’s presence behind the camera is not intrusive, such camera movement reveals her obsessive attention to details, making the auteur’s artistic and personal sensibility felt throughout the film. The unstable camera betrays her inquisitive look at the situation unfolding in front of her eyes whereas the overall film narrative fashions a political agenda : Varda looks into the details of the Panthers’ organization with a view to countering the aggressive iconography that had haunted the media’s portrayal of the party since its birth in October 1966. A close analysis of both films’ semiotic discourse allows us to grasp the political reasoning behind the construction of the Panthers’ iconography, which the media turned into a threat that had to be contained according to FBI director J. Egdar Hoover, who viewed the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” (Jones, 366) Varda aims to debunk the negative stereotypes by retrieving the political message behind the iconic photograph of Huey P. Newton dressed in African regalia, used first to advertise the party and then to represent its persecution by the police.

3Varda’s nonfiction films provide a first-hand window into the culture of the Panthers, which she invites us to experience through her own gaze. Her camera focuses on the Panthers’ symbolic culture, panning from the image of clenched fists to the faces of children attending the Black Panthers’ rally in Huey whereas she spotlights the party programs’ concrete impact on the African American communities, tracking along the streets of downtown Oakland with her camera in Black Panthers. The two documentaries articulate Varda’s consistent engagement with contemporary political issues, echoing her previous documentary entitled Salut les Cubains (1963), which builds on the relationship she is able to establish with her filmed subjects and foreshadowing Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) (The Gleaner and I in English). Through a close study of Huey and Black Panthers, we aim to shed light on Varda’s deontological approach to nonfiction filmmaking: Huey and Black Panthers capture the Zeitgeist of the Black Panther party while giving shape to her documentary ethics. Nonetheless, the historiography of the movement allows us to cast a retrospective look at the party and to shed light on internal contradictions which the filmmaker did not grasp when filming history in the making.

Documenting the Panthers’ Theatrical Politics

  • 3 In Black Panthers, Agnès Varda explains that the panther was chosen as a symbol for the party’s adv (...)
  • 4 In Black Panthers, Agnès Varda clarifies the details of the case: “There were nine gunshots. Testim (...)
  • 5 Jama Lazerow and Yohuru R. Williams, In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspective on a Rev (...)

4The opening sequences of both Huey and Black Panthers show public acts of representation: Huey opens outside Alameda County courthouse, where a line of men dressed in black demonstrate their opposition to Huey P. Newton’s trial, brandishing flags that feature the icon of the party—a black panther.3 Newton was held captive and cross-examined after allegedly killing a police officer; there was however no witness but a wounded police officer to testify whether Newton had shot a gun, which aroused dismay among the Panthers who viewed Newton’s imprisonment as a flagrant case of racist injustice.4 The verdict had not yet been reached when Varda filmed Black Panthers, which begins in the midst of a concert organized in support of the imprisoned leader. The camera underscores the joyous atmosphere among the people singing and dancing with a raised fist whereas the Panthers march among them, making a display of their erect posture and virile outfit: the black leather jacket symbolized the tough urban ghettoes from which they came, emphasizing their virility; the beret signified their identification with the revolutionary programs of the Chicano Brown Berets;5 their sunglasses defied the gaze of onlookers and instilled mystery into their bold demeanor. Adopting the techniques of the expository mode of documentary filmmaking, Varda draws a sympathetic portrait of the Panthers for the viewer whom she addresses directly through the use of the voice-over in Black Panthers, underlining the paradox between the cool atmosphere of the concert and the political purpose of the gathering: “This is neither a picnic nor a celebration in Oakland. This is a political rally organized by the Black Panthers. They are Black activists who prepare their revolution. On that August 1968 Sunday their goal was to get one of their leaders, Huey P. Newton, out of jail.” (Lazerow and Williams, 256) Both shorts convey the filmmaker’s curiosity as the camera focalizes on the male figures parading about, capturing an act of self-representation that Varda strives to document.

  • 6 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001, 2010, xiii.
  • 7 « Dans ce collège, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale ont décidé d’apprendre à leurs frères, les Noirs, (...)

5Most of Huey focuses on the rally organized in Oakland in 1968 to gather support for Newton and includes extracts from a series of speeches delivered by the Party’s leaders–including Bobby Seale and other charismatic figures of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Varda does not aestheticize the rally’s mise-en-scène, filming the leaders in lateral medium close shots or from below the stage where they stand, eschewing frontal shots as though she would rather remain unnoticed in the background. The straying camera suggests her wandering gaze in an unfamiliar environment; the movements of a hand-held camera are visible, enhancing the filmmaker’s physical presence on location. The events are not staged for the camera, which records them as they occur, creating an impression of authenticity that documentary theorist Bill Nichols associates with the ethical values of the genre.6 Varda attempts to immerse herself in the group to portray the Panthers from the inside. The opening sequence of Huey articulates her commitment to the Panthers, whose point of view she adopts by translating the local leader’s words into visuals. Her interviewee considers that Huey Newton’s case encapsulates the racist treatment African Americans repeatedly fall prey to: “We’re here right now to show standing support to our leader and minister of Defense Huey P. Newton who’s on the 10th floor of this building right here being prosecuted for allegedly shooting a police officer. We’re gonna be here and stay here until Huey P. Newton is set free. If he is not set free… The sky is the limit.” When filming outside Alameda’s courthouse, she twice cuts to long shots of police officers scrutinizing the Panthers’ activities from afar: one rides a motorbike and wears dark sunglasses whereas three others stand in the entrance of the courthouse behind its glass doors, symbolically delineating space around the activists. Varda visually marks the distant figures of police officers as a hovering threat by zooming in and out of their half-hidden figures, enhancing the state of constant surveillance to which the Panthers are subjected. In Black Panthers, the voice-over explicitly indicates that Varda sides with the Panthers, borrowing their vocabulary to characterize the police as the “embodiment of the aggressor, the colonizer and the racist, commonly called pigs.”7

6Varda relinquishes all critical distance in Huey and Black Panthers, endorsing the Panthers’ message of self-defense that represented the most contentious point of their platforms according to the media and to the authorities. She brings attention to all the symbols of the party—signs, pins, flags, music, among others, thus taking part in the Panthers’ promotional campaigns. Nichols argues that “documentaries are not documents. They may use documents and facts, but they always interpret them” (Nichols, 147). Huey and Black Panthers point to the complicity between Varda and the Panther Party whose propaganda she endorses without questioning its limitations; her proximity with the Panthers does not seem to nurture a critical interpretation. Huey and Black Panthers blur the distinction between the Panthers’ and Varda’s political stance, for she more often than not seems to replicate their ideological take by relating events from their standpoint. She presents the Panthers as unjustly victimized and persecuted when she characterizes Bobby Hutton as a martyr by focusing on the visual traces of the shooting that unfolded in his apartment. She takes her camera to film the exterior of the flat and the interior of the room where the 17-year-old boy was murdered, searching for bullet impacts by panning around the apartment in close-ups, suggesting he was caught defenseless by an unexpected police attack on that fateful night of April 6th, 1967. An unidentified female voice-over relates Hutton’s death, prompting the viewer to sympathize with his plight as a sacrificial victim: “He died for black people, he died for revolution so other black people in the world can gain their freedom, the freedom which has been denied for the past 400 years.” Varda counters the anonymity of the voice-over by paying attention to visual details, lingering on the objects that signify the violence that targets the Black Panthers, including the broken glass and smashed mirror. Black Panthers also includes colored shots of Bobby Hutton’s apartment in the first minutes of the documentary as though the bullet-ridden door provided an entry into the culture of the Panthers, thus underlining the fierce opposition that led the police to relentlessly chase after them. Huey further incorporates extracts from Varda’s behind-bars conversation with imprisoned Newton, whose political statements serve to comment on archival footage of Bobby Hutton’s funeral, which is intercut with the interview of the Panthers’ leader. Newton compares the Panthers’ deaths with those of the Vietnamese, urging African Americans to relate their fight to the liberation struggle in the colonies, explicitly identifying the police forces with the colonial army. Varda offers her films as a platform to Huey Newton, whom she humanizes through the interview that sheds light on a man of words as he expands on the theoretical underpinning of the party. The figure of plain-clothed Newton sitting in jail downplays the aggressive iconography of the Panthers as combat warriors and undermines the threat depicted by the media.

7Film critic David James blames Varda with “almost producing them [the Panthers] as the exotic natives of an ethnographic documentary.” (Nichols, xiii) The scholar contends that, as a white French director, Varda could not but depict the group from an outsider’s perspective, expressing her fascination with the “racial other” represented by the men in the Panther Party. Varda seems blind to the political impact of an imagery that tapped into archetypal fantasies. For communication scholar Jane Rhodes, “they [the Panthers] were fit into narrow, unidimensional frames that told the public little about why the organization existed, its appeal to black youth across the nation, or its relationship to the nation’s racial crisis.” (Rhodes, 87) The author argues that the Panthers’ confident and defiant looks, embodied by Newton’s bravado and arrogance, undermined the visibility of the party’s political program while reviving racist stereotypes of blackness: “Although their platform was indistinct, what they represented was not. These visual and verbal images tapped into white Americans’ primal fears of black male sexuality.”(Rhodes, 94) Varda neither challenges nor questions the activists’ paramilitary spectacle, which she spotlights by focusing on the public spectacle the Panthers orchestrated as an act of defiance against stereotypes.

The Art of Gleaning Images in Varda’s documentaries

  • 8 “To me, it’s to find out some important aspect of our society by watching our society, by watching (...)

8Varda strives to understand the Panthers’ political culture through the mediation of the camera. Whether she makes herself visible by commenting on the filmed events through the voice-over (Black Panthers) or remains an observer whose attentive look determines framing and camera movements (Huey), the film produced transforms a subjective experience into a structured representation. In her book devoted to Agnès Varda, Alison Smith comments on the filmmaker’s role as a mediator between the raw material she captures with her camera and the film which she presents as a constructed discourse: “Not only does Varda link the ‘document brut’ (raw documentary footage) to ‘ses réponses affectives ou rationnelles’ (emotional and rational responses), but also to a ‘histoire articulée’ (constructed story), a presentable form which will allow the audience to see it differently.”(Smith, 171) Varda does not claim to present an objective record of the events as argued in the tradition of Direct Cinema, embodied by such American filmmakers as Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and Donn Alan Pennebaker, who believed observation was key to the documentary’s claim to truth.8 Varda occupies an intermediary position between her audience and her filmed subjects: although she does not wish to be seen in the frame, thereby downplaying her presence as the author-creator, she does not claim to film the world from the ethnographer’s vantage point. In her autobiography, Varda observes that:

  • 9 « Le talent, quand on est documentariste, c’est d’arriver à se faire oublier. Avoir annoncé la coul (...)

The talent of the documentarist is to manage to be forgotten. To have set the tone. To have said to people: I’m going to light the scene, I’m going to be there, but after that, forget about me. It is from the moment when they forget about us that the talent shows. But the main subject is the people themselves, not me.9

9Varda minimizes her role as filmmaker to emphasize the presence of the characters she puts forth. Her mobile camera combines with the soft tone of her voice to suggest that she does not strive to master the narrative of her filmed subjects. She seems to capture the events as they unfold; her camera moves are unsteady and unexpected, testifying to the authenticity of her project, which was neither planned nor controlled by an outside power. She walks her camera among the crowd in Huey and down the streets in Black Panthers, looking for significant visual details to spotlight. The camera follows her gaze, espousing her point of view.

10Black Panthers epitomizes Varda’s subsequent documentary filmmaking practice, which film critic Virginia Bonner compares with “a form of gleaning, conditioned by what a filmmaker finds valuable while shooting on location, which footage the filmmaker selects for inclusion in a film, and how the filmmaker chooses to arrange those selections for an audience.” (Bonner, 120) The selection to which Varda proceeds enhances the attention she pays to representing others with respect to their singularity. When filming the gleaners whom she comes across in France, she seeks to humanize the outcasts by filming her physical proximity with them. She breaks the barrier between herself as filmmaker and her filmed subjects, entering the group of people she invites the viewer to encounter with her. While these efforts on her part aim at producing a sincere portrayal of the gleaners, they also unveil part of her character: Varda enters the frame and joins in the group, thereby physically committing herself to her film project and subject. The shift from Black Panthers to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) illustrates Varda’s transformation into a committed filmmaker who blends her art with her political views, prioritizing the empowerment of the other through her camera. In the words of film scholar Martine Beugnet, Varda maintains “a commitment to the critical observation of her contemporary world and her belief in a cinema where authorship and political engagement are not antithetical.” (Beugnet, 289) The author notes “gestures of parity between Varda herself and her filmed subjects” (Beugnet, 289), which the interviews staged in Black Panthers illustrate. Varda lets her counterparts speak at length about the issues they broach, filming them in close-ups that signify her desire to establish proximity and to override all types of prejudices against the Panthers. In the voice-over commentary, she draws attention to the word “brother” which she seems to translate in visual terms by positioning herself and her camera in the midst of the Black Panthers.

11Black Panthers stresses a paradox: the hand-held camera emphasizes Varda’s personal commitment to the Panthers, whom she strives to depict from the inside, whereas her voice-over underlines her status as an outsider. The film illustrates the difficult balance to be achieved by the filmmaker who has to negotiate power relations between herself as an auteur fashioning the overall narrative and her filmed subjects, whose image she does not want to distort. Varda uses her own voice-over to reconcile these objectives, thereby making it clear that she does not contend herself with getting footage on the fly (as in Huey). The film is no objective documentary, but the images of her relation with the Panthers. Bill Nichols refers to The Gleaners and I to demonstrate that “an autobiographical note enters into these films that bears similarity to essayistic or diaristic model for participatory filmmaking.” (Beugnet, 202) Try as she might to remain out of shot, Varda’s presence as an auteur permeates the documentary. She may not be taking part in the actions she records in Black Panthers; however, her physical presence with a camera on the Oakland streets and in the midst of the Panthers testifies to her personal and political commitment. Although she interferes in the interviews by asking direct questions, she allows her filmed subjects to speak for themselves without interruption. Her backlit figure slightly appears on screen when she speaks with Kathleen Cleaver, thus expressing her concern for the role of women within the party.

12The documentary borrows from the participatory mode as Varda films the relationship she establishes with her filmed subjects, giving the Panthers a voice that challenges their aggressive iconography. Nichols contends that the participatory mode encompasses two components: “filmmakers who seek to represent their own direct encounter with their surrounding world and those who seek to represent broad social issues and historical perspectives through interviews and compilation footage […].” (Beugnet, 187) Varda combines both intents in her film as she discusses political issues with her interviewees, approaching the Panthers as individuals whose ‘threatening image’ she attempts to demystify. Although Varda does not appear on screen, the interviews interestingly demonstrate that she is able to overcome the color line and the media-inspired prejudices by relating to the people she films.

13However, her proximity with the Panthers prevents critical distance. In Huey, Varda downplays the violence of the Panthers’ message; when Stokely Carmichael compares the police persecution of African Americans with the “genocide of the red man,” she directs her camera to insignificant details in the audience—including smiles and thoughtful faces, African garbs and sleeping children in their prams, talking individuals and a few white faces. From Bobby Seale to H. Rap Brown to Stokely Carmichael, she underlines different tones of voice and body language, creating a dialectical relationship between their words and the iconic photograph of Newton posing with Zulu shields, rifle, and spear. Staged by the party’s Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver for a fundraiser poster, the photograph makes use of popular Afrocentric symbols to signify African Americans’ warrior state of mind. The Panther Party’s poster of Newton posing with African regalia activates preexisting mental representations, associating the Panthers with primal fears of the “Other”, imagined as a primitive savage. Varda does not seem to be aware that her film helps perpetuate that imagery, which Newton himself disapproved as he stated in an article dated May 15, 1968: “The cultural nationalists are concerned with returning to the old African culture and thereby regaining their identity and freedom. In other words, they feel that the African culture will automatically bring political freedom. Many times cultural nationalists fall into line as reactionary nationalists.” (Newton, 90) This observation calls attention to contradictions and tensions that brewed dissatisfaction within the party, which Varda did not seem to be aware of.

Looking beyond the framing of Varda’s camera

14In her study of The Gleaners and I, film and literary scholar Emma Wilson analyses the creative distance between Varda as a narrator and her subjects to posit that the filmmaker’s unobtrusive presence allows her interviewees to acquire a voice that cannot be subjected to her domination:

The narratives, objects and lives of others are not so much exhibited, as they are respected as living and organic, as distractions, not possessions for the filmmaker. Varda’s subjects retain possession of their narrative, their lives continue beyond the frame of her documentary (Wilson 105).

  • 10 « La police d’Oakland, célèbre pour sa brutalité, ne cache pas sa haine pour les panthères noires. (...)

15Varda invites the viewer to share in her life experience by looking at the world through her eyes. The filmmaker depicts the internal dynamics of the Panther Party by taking her camera among the people who live in the ghetto of Oakland. The final image of Black Panthers represents the bullet-torn photograph of Newton on the shattered window of the Party’s office, connoting the Panthers’ vulnerability to the forces arrayed against them. The still shot also represents an indictment of the police as she borrows the word “pigs” from the Panthers themselves to allude to racist violence in the voice-over commentary: “Oakland police officers are famous for their brutality; they do not hide their hatred of the Black Panthers. They seize upon every pretext to harass them, to arrest them, to search them and to enter into their houses without a warrant.”10 The film builds on the dichotomy between empowerment and victimization to construct the Panthers’ characterization, arousing contradictory feelings of both admiration and sympathy for the Panthers’ fight and plight.

16Try as she might to not intrude in the field, Varda’s political sensibility serves as a filter to the representation of the Panthers’ story. As the author of Salut les Cubains (1963), a short documentary dedicated to portraying Cuba after the revolution overthrew the Batista regime (1959), Varda expressed her interest in the Leninist-Marxist rebellion of the men and women whose daily life was transformed by political changes brought in the wake of Fidel Castro’s coming to power. This historical documentary draws attention to Cuban artistic creativity (music, dance, painting, literature, cinema), which wrongly foreshadowed a utopian dream that Varda along with other French intellectuals naively believed in. Discussing Salut les Cubains, Sylvain Dreyer argues that Varda’s documentary exhibits both her gaze and her views while arousing political consciousness; the scholar contends that the film thereby becomes an act of collective artistic creation as Varda opens up screen space for her characters to participate in the act of filmic creation (Dreier, 32). Her presence behind the camera pervades the film, which allows her to engage the viewer in the filmed encounters. The use of the voice-over permits her to override the cultural interstices between her filmed subjects and the viewers, whom she invites to identify with herself.

17This identification has a double-bind in Huey and Black Panthers: fascinated with the spectacle of the Panthers who exhibit their virility through parading with rifles and combat boots in public places, Varda fails to question the dichotomies that characterize their discursive strategies—opposing white and black, bourgeois and proletarian, nonviolence and self-defense, men and women (Ling and Monteith, 4). Varda does not not seem to comprehend the radical speeches that can be overheard in Huey: the words that repeatedly crop up – including “oppression”, “racism”, “police brutality”, “blackness”, “Vietnam”, “poverty”, “retaliation”, among others, are not just rallying phrases used to promote solidarity and unity among African Americans, they express the sense of “revenge” which provided the driving force behind the Black Power movement according to Michelle Wallace. The feminist scholar contends that “it was not equality that was primarily being pursued but a kind of superiority—black manhood, black macho—which would combine the ghetto cunning, cool, and unrestrained sexuality of black survival with the unchecked authority, control, and wealth of white power.” (Wallace, 34) While filming the paramilitary marches amid the crowd of women and children, Varda does not interrogate the coercive image of masculinity and order they represented. Wallace derided the Panthers as “just a lot of black men strutting around with Afros” whereas Varda follows their swaggering figures with admiration (Wallace, 81).

18Interviewed from his cell in Black Panthers, Newton explains that women hold high-ranking positions within the party, which Kathleen Cleaver embodies as the Panthers’ communications secretary in charge of public relations. It is nonetheless the male leader of the Oakland branch that enunciates the ten-point program of the party, with point five being introduced by a youth who explains his educative mission in the community. When Varda interviews Kathleen Cleaver about her role in the party, which includes leafleting, building libraries, communication with the press, etc., the discussion soon shifts from political concerns to black notions of beauty, enhancing the ideological role of appearance in the definition of racial and gender identity. As she listens to Kathleen Cleaver discuss the African American women’s relation to their bodies and tackle the subject of gender issues within the Black Panther Party, the camera first zooms in on the woman’s face and then zooms out to portray the group of women supporters standing by. The figure of Varda discretely appears as a cropped shadow on the left-hand side of the screen, including her in the community of women. The color line vanishes between the women whose encounter the camera captures, producing a community effect that extends beyond the screen. However, this proximity once again undermines all critical distance, for Varda fails to see that women are never in the limelight in the party. They may help staff breakfast programs, provide support work and community service; yet, they do not stand beside the black leaders at the Free Huey rally and are driven away from “real political activism”. Cleaver mentions beauty in reference to the male gaze and to the Afrocentric trend, which prompt women to wear an Afro hairstyle connoting the “Black is Beautiful” slogan.

19Huey gives an insight into the gender rift that undermined cohesion within the party. Rather than put forth the “Black women who take initiative and work to become leaders in their own rights,” (Davis, 161) the leaders of the rally invite Huey P. Newton’s mother to come on stage in order to honour the woman who gave birth to the Black Panthers’ leader. The scene betrays an ideology of gender based on stereotypes at work within the party, pointing to the role women are expected to play in the shadow of the Panthers’ leader, whose empty wicker chair is used as a conspicuous prop at the middle of the stage. For Angela Davis, “some black activists (…) confuse[d] their political activity with the assertion of their maleness” (Davis, 161)—which that very scene illustrates. It is not sure whether Varda realized that gender roles were strictly defined within the party, including through the emphasis on women’s motherly role, for she makes no mention of it in the voice-over of Black Panthers.

20Huey and Black Panthers capture the revolutionary culture pervading the Black Panther Party through an intimate look at their activities. Varda as a filmmaker constructs this proximity by overriding the color line and racial stereotypes, delving into the African American community in Oakland through its 1968 activist endeavours. Her interviews are encounters, which do not construct her interlocutors as the “other”, for Varda does not try to impose a discourse on them. She uses her camera to engage with the Panthers and to give them the opportunity to speak for themselves. She associates their voice with their gestures, their uniforms with their beliefs, allowing them to transcend the stereotyping process that visually confines them to “otherness” in the media into self-representation. Although she uses a voice-over to organize the narrative, conveying historical details as to the Panthers’ political intents and paramilitary strategies in Black Panthers, Varda endeavors to overcome the visual distance between the French viewer and the community represented by explaining the situation she observes from the inside. Varda places her camera among the Panthers themselves, tracking down the lines of military formations to capture individual features that challenge the onlookers’ gaze: rather than view the Panthers as potential threats, she characterizes them as men and women who are committed to defending their rights as African American citizens. Their situation is not unlike that of the colonized subjects as she explains in the voice-over commentary of Black Panthers, thereby allowing the French viewer to relate the Panthers’ fight in the United States to the liberation struggles in the colonies—with Huey P. Newton’s path of reasoning echoing Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Varda’s 1968 documentaries articulate her keen sense of observation, which allowed her to capture the major combats of her time, turning each new film project into a personal meditation on some of the marking events of the 20th century.

21The films nonetheless bear the imprint of her naïve discovery of the racial issue in the United States. While drawn to the men’s theatrical politics which the media emphasized, Varda does not completely subvert the dominant framing. Her films participate in the construction of a mythology around the Panthers, overshadowing the commitment of African American women to bringing change. Jane Rhodes contends that the Panthers’ arrogant bravado was but a façade—“a swaggering, sometimes violent, hypermasculine aggressiveness that masked the uncertainties and real dangers of everyday life” (Rhodes, 94), which obviously fooled Varda and many others.

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VARDA, Agnès (Director). 1968. Black Panthers. France. </>.

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1 Huey can be watched online at <> and Black Panthers can be accessed on <>.

2 Illustrating this confusion is the English page of Wikipedia, which presents Huey as the English translation of the French title Black Panthers. See online at <ès_Varda> (accessed on February 17th, 2013). The filmography in the book Agnès Varda : le cinéma et au-delà includes no reference to Huey (Antoine Fiant, Roxane Hamery and Eric Thouvenel (eds.), Agnès Varda : le cinéma et au-delà, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009).

3 In Black Panthers, Agnès Varda explains that the panther was chosen as a symbol for the party’s advocacy of self-defence because it is a black animal which fights only when attacked: “La panthère a été choisie comme emblème parce que c’est un animal noir et magnifique qui n’attaque pas mais se défend férocement.”

4 In Black Panthers, Agnès Varda clarifies the details of the case: “There were nine gunshots. Testimonials are contradictory, but a police officer is dead and the other is wounded; he did no see Newton hold a gun in his hand. It was pitch dark anyway.” (“Il y a eu neuf coups de feu. Les témoignages sont contradictoires, mais un policier est mort et l’autre blessé n’a pas vu d’armes dans la main de Newton. D’ailleurs il faisait nuit noire.”) (All translations are the author’s except where otherwise noted).

5 Jama Lazerow and Yohuru R. Williams, In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspective on a Revolutionary Movement, Durham, Duke University Press, 2006, 256.

6 Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001, 2010, xiii.

7 « Dans ce collège, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale ont décidé d’apprendre à leurs frères, les Noirs, à se défendre contre l’agression – et d’abord contre ceux qui sont l’image même de l’agresseur, du colonisateur et du raciste : les policiers appelés plus communément les cochons. »

8 “To me, it’s to find out some important aspect of our society by watching our society, by watching how things really happen as opposed to the social image that people hold about the way things are supposed to happen.” (Pryluck, 194).

9 « Le talent, quand on est documentariste, c’est d’arriver à se faire oublier. Avoir annoncé la couleur. Avoir dit aux gens : je vais éclairer, je vais être là, mais après oubliez-moi. C’est à partir de ce moment où ils nous oublient qu’on a du talent. Mais le sujet principal, c’est eux. Pas moi. » (Varda, 250)

10 « La police d’Oakland, célèbre pour sa brutalité, ne cache pas sa haine pour les panthères noires. Tout est bon pour les harasser, les arrêter, les fouiller, pénétrer dans leurs maisons sans mandate d’arrêt. »

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Delphine Letort, « Agnès Varda: filming the Black Panthers's Struggle »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 217 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 09 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Delphine Letort

Université du Maine

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