Beyoncé’s Orwellian Panther tribute

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Some images from the history of the Black Panthers….

Back in December, we discussed a blinkered review by the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeFore of Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers,” we wrote, “you’d come away from DeFore’s review…believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism.”

**FILE**Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, wearing a Colt .45, and Huey Newton, right, defense minister with a bandoleer and shotgun are shown in Oakland, Calif., in this undated file photo. The Black Panther Party officially existed for just 16 years. Seale never expected to see the 40th anniversary of the Black Panther Party he co-founded with Huey Newton. But its reach has endured far longer, something Seale and other party members will commemorate when they reunite in Oakland this weekend. (AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner)DeFore wasn’t the only reviewer of The Black Panthers to join in Nelson’s baldfaced whitewashing of the twisted, violent Panthers. As we noted, it took Michael Moynihan, writing in the Daily Beast, to point out that “beyond the mindless ‘power to the people’ platitudes, the Panthers were ideological fanatics,” a “murderous and totalitarian cult” that repeatedly expressed devotion to the demonic likes of Mao, Kim Il Sung, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and above all Joseph Stalin, who was repeatedly quoted and praised in the group’s periodical The Black Panther. Moynihan further noted the Panthers’ “deeply conservative gender politics,” which involved not only anti-feminist rhetoric but systematic physical abuse. In 1974, for instance, Panther founder Huey Newton “was charged with murdering a teenage prostitute who had ‘disrespected’ him.”

bp1Indeed, murder was at the very heart of the Panther agenda. The group was, as David Horowitz once put it, nothing less than “a criminal army at war with society,” “a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American Left.” Now a prominent conservative, Horowitz was once a radical leftist who during the early days of the Panther movement collaborated very closely with its leaders. “Violence,” he has explained, “was an integral part of the Party’s internal life….this Party of liberators enforced discipline on the black ‘brothers and sisters’ inside the organization with bull-whips, the very symbol of the slave past.”

Those words appeared in Horowitz’s account of A Taste of Power, the 1992 memoir of former Panther leader Elaine Brown, who entered the group via “the Slausons, a forerunner of the Bloods and the Crips.” In her book, she explained “how the Panthers originally grew out of criminal street gangs, and how the gang mentality remained the core of the Party’s sense of itself, even during the heyday of its political glory.” As she recalled, she was

bppdemostunned by the magnitude of the party’s weaponry….There were literally thousands of weapons. There were large numbers of AR-18 short automatic rifles,. 308 scoped rifles, 30-30 Winchesters, .375 magnum and other big-game rifles, .30 caliber Garands, M-15s and M-16s and other assorted automatic and semi-automatic rifles, Thompson submachine guns, M-59 Santa Fe Troopers, Boys .55 caliber anti-tank guns, M-60 fully automatic machine guns, innumerable shotguns, and M-79 grenade launchers….There were caches of crossbows and arrows, grenades and miscellaneous explosive materials and devices.

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Beyoncé at the Super Bowl

All of which leads us, surreal as it may sound, to Beyoncé. Yes, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, the 34-year-old, Houston-born superstar songstress who’s won 20 Grammys, been named Artist of the Millennium by Billboard, and appeared twice on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2009 she paid tribute to the new American president, Barack Obama, by tenderly warbling “At Last” at an inaugural ball; four years later, in another thrilling turn, she sang (or, rather, lip-synched) the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration. These were stirring patriotic moments (lip-synching aside). But then, the other day, on the most-watched program of the year, Beyoncé put a humongous blot on her own splendid, glittering escutcheon. Performing during halftime at the Super Bowl, she paid tribute again – this time not to her country or to its president, but to the Black Panthers.

beyonce2Yes, the Black Panthers. Her Super Bowl show was an exercise in what one critic called  Black Panther chic.” Her dancers, reported the New York Post, were “dressed in homage to the Black Panther Party, at one point joining her in giving millions of viewers a black-power salute as she belted out her new politically charged power anthem, ‘Formation.’” Suggesting that the show might be the most radical political statement from the superstar in her 20-year career,” the Guardian reported that her backup dancers, “wearing Black Panther-style berets and clad in black leather were photographed after the performance posing with raised fists evocative of the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.”

beyonce4Much of the halftime show,” observed the Post, was about love and togetherness…the audience spelled out ‘Believe in Love’ with rainbow-colored placards.” Love? This was all about love? Does Beyoncé sincerely believe that the Black Panther movement has, or ever had, anything whatsoever to do with love? If she does, then she can only be described as a thoroughgoing historical ignoramus, and thus a useful stooge of the first order. For the fact is that the Black Panthers were, quite simply, hate set in system. They were racists, terrorists, homophobes, anti-Semites, proud disciples of the cruelest and most remorseless totalitarian despots of the twentieth century. Nothing could be more Orwellian than the notion that they were ever driven, in any sense of the word, by love.

beyonce5Of course, Beyoncé is far from alone in her self-delusion. As Nelson’s Black Panther documentary demonstrated quite neatly, a revisionist approach to the history of the Panthers – a determination, that is, to turn these devils into saints, these monsters into martyrs, these ruthless purveyors of mindless violence into heroic victims of government harassment and police brutality – is all the rage these days in PC circles. In many quarters, accordingly, Beyoncé’s halftime salute to Newton’s gang of murderers, drug dealers, pimps, rapists, and extortionists won gushing plaudits.

beyonce9The Fashionista website, for instance, praised her use of “wardrobe to bring attention to her latest song’s powerful commentary.” The celebrity gossip site TMZ called her performance “a stirring political statement.” Julee Wilson, senior fashion editor of the Huffington Post, cheered what she described as Beyoncé’s “powerful nod to the sleek and serious uniform of the Black Panthers.” Wilson’s piece, as it happens, ran under the following headline: “Beyoncé’s Dancers Slay In Black Panther Outfits During Super Bowl Halftime Show.” We have no way of knowing who was responsible for putting the word “slay” in that headline, or, for that matter, whether the allusion to the violence of the Black Panthers – who did far more than their share of literal slaying – was intentional or inadvertent.

Strikingly, Caroline Framke, writing in Vox, used the same word: “Beyoncé slayed.” Framke, too, celebrated Beyoncé’s act, describing it as “a huge, purposeful statement” that offered “defiant social commentary” and that was “proudly steeped in black American culture” – as if the Black Panthers were anything to be proud of. In sum, wrote Framke, Beyoncé “transformed one of the biggest events in sports, corporate synergy, and entertainment into a distinctly political act.”

Meanwhile the website of Essence, the magazine for black women, secured an interview with Marni Senofonte, Beyoncé’s stylist. Senofonte had this to say about the show’s message:

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Beyonce (L) performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

It was important to her to honor the beauty of strong Black women and celebrate the unity that fuels their power. One of the best examples of that is the image of the female Black Panther. The women of the Black Panther Party created a sisterhood and worked right alongside their men fighting police brutality and creating community social programs. That they started here in the Bay Area, where the SuperBowl is being held this year, was not lost on her. And they made a fashion statement with natural afros, black leather jackets and black pant suits. That image of women in leadership roles; believing they are a vital part of the struggle is undeniably provocative and served as reference and reality.

Senofonte called Beyoncé’s show “a celebration of history.” On the contrary, as reflected in Senofonte’s own staggeringly misinformed account of Black Panther women, it was a celebration – and a supremely ignorant and dangerous one, at that – of the wholesale rewriting of history.

Those lovable Black Panthers

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Bobby Seale and Huey Newton

Reviewing Stanley Nelson‘s new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution back in January, John DeFore of the Hollywood Reporter gave a big thumbs-up to its admiring portrayal of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and company. If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers, you’d come away from DeFore’s review – or, one gathers, from Nelson’s film (which was aired earlier this year on PBS) – believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism. Yes, DeFore acknowledges the film’s lack of objectivity, but is quick to add that “[s]traight history is not the whole point here.”

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Detroit Black Panthers at a Free Huey demonstration, 1969

DeFore isn’t alone; audiences at Sundance and other film festivals have cheered Nelson’s film lustily. It took Michael Moynihan, writing in The Daily Beast on July 25, to remind – or inform – readers that the Black Panthers were, in fact, bloodthirsty totalitarian-minded thugs who committed “revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, [and] ‘disappearances.’” Nelson’s film, Moynihan complained, is pure hagiography, omitting “almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers.” By emphasizing the Panthers’ style – the way they dressed and moved and talked – and soft-pedaling their ideology, Nelson managed to dance around the fact that the Panthers were, in Moynihan’s words, “ideological fanatics” who were guided, as the Panthers’ own newspaper put it, by “the revolutionary works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Comrades Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and other great leaders of the worldwide people’s struggle for liberation.”

blackpanthers1To peruse old issues of that newspaper, notes Moynihan, is to encounter passages about “racist imperialist faggot honkey[s],” innumerable pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Mao Tse-Tung, “paeans to demented Albanian Stalinist Enver Hoxha,” and, time and time again, “glowing references to Josef Stalin” by such Panther eminences as Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, and Bobby Seale. But Nelson drops all this troublesome baggage down the memory hole. While he tells the Panthers’ story mostly through the personal accounts by former members, moreover, he consistently whitewashes those accounts. For example, ex-Panther Jamal Joseph, now a faculty member at Columbia University, was (notes Moynihan) “sentenced to 12½ years in prison for his part in the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery, which resulted in the death of three innocents.” Joseph is one of the main talking heads in Nelson’s film;  but his “very long rap sheet…is never mentioned.” 

On May 2, 1967, Black Panthers amassed at the Capitol in Sacramento brandishing guns to protest a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. Self-defense was a key part of the Panthers' agenda. This was an early action, a year after their founding.
Panthers occupy California State Capitol, Sacramento, 1967

Moynihan’s conclusion? Nelson’s film has its share of cinematic pizzazz, but he’s “an astonishingly bad journalist.” Why?

Because a good journalist would have forced [interviewees] Joseph, [Ericka] Huggins, [Flores] Forbes, and [Landon] Williams to confront their own pasts and the Panther’s violent legacy, while steering them away from rote banalities accusing the FBI of provoking their murderousness. A good journalist would have brought in voices critical of the party from other expanses of the civil rights movement (like the late Bayard Rustin). A good journalist might look at the actuarial table for Panther members and wonder why more Panthers were killed by fellow black nationalists than by the pigs.

But of course, it looks as though journalism was the last thing Nelson had in mind here. What he was going for was celebration – a celebration of brutal, tyrant-worshiping hoodlums. And one crowd of film buffs after another has joined in his applause.