Our topic this week has been Ilinca Calugareanu’s extraordinary documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism. The film takes us back to Communist Romania in the 1980s, when ordinary people gathered secretly to watch Hollywood movies – and thus got their first precious glimpses of life under freedom.
In an interview with PBS, Calugareanu, who herself attended these group screenings as a kid, described her film as telling a story “that the world needed to hear, a story filled with joy and magic from a part of the world that most film audiences don’t know much about.” She’s right. In another interview, at a Toronto film festival, she recalls that when she was a child and walked into a group screening and saw the TV set and VCR, the thrill was palpable – you felt as if “you could almost touch freedom and the West.” People who have lived their entire lives in freedom need to be reminded how precious that gift is. To viewers who do appreciate their freedom, this documentary will be a deeply moving experience.
Unfortunately, many Western film critics don’t belong to that category of viewers. It doesn’t help that they are so contemptuous of the action vehicles starring actors like Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris that they can’t bring themselves to even try to appreciate what such fare meant to people living under totalitarianism. One such critic is Scott Foundas, who, reviewing the documentary last year in Variety, actually described it as a “breezily entertaining bonbon” – which is just this side of calling Schindler’s List a “fun romp” or Shoah a “great date film.” To be sure, Foundas was on-point when he compared Zamfir to a Graham Greene character and when he praised Calugareanu for giving her picture “the flair of a good espionage yarn.” And at least he treated the documentary and its mission with a degree of respect, acknowledging the importance of the fact that “the glimpses of the West and Western democracy afforded by American films…did much to counteract the influence of Ceausescu’s powerful propaganda machine.”
But then there’s John DeFore, who, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, sneered condescendingly about the “jingoistic action films and romantic fantasies” that worked magic on Romanian audiences. DeFore even managed to work into his review the term “cultural imperialism” – giving one the distinct impression that for him, what’s disturbing about Calugarean’s story is not the idea of people living under a real-life dictatorship that sought to brainwash and terrorize them 24/7 but the idea of them being ideologically influenced by such dreaded capitalism-promoting products as Top Gun and Pretty Woman.
Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Jordan Hoffman unhesitatingly panned Calugareanu’s documentary, complaining that it “says everything it needs to say in its first 15 minutes, and then just keeps rewinding the tape….While I’m sure the dissemination of black market tapes truly did have huge social repercussions, there’s a surprising ‘so what?’ effect after the 15th recollection of what it was like to watch Rambo.”
That Hoffman should respond so dismissively, so unfeelingly, to such an extraordinarily stirring chapter of modern history tells us a great deal about him. And it’s not pretty. All he succeeds in doing, in his small-minded piece, is to remind us that while there are men and women of remarkable courage in totalitarian countries who yearn for freedom and who strive to do their part to bring down tyranny, there are also pathetic characters in free countries who not only take their freedom for granted but who think it’s cool and chic to mock the very idea of yearning for freedom.
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.”
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.”
Indeed, 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
stunned 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.
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.
Yes, 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.”
“Much 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.
Of 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.
The 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:
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.
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.”
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.”
To 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.”
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.