Brothers and Mommas

Seizing the time: Bobby Seale in Public Enemy

"Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here because there is no place else to gather..." An older black man in short sleeves--his salt-and-pepper hair close-cropped, his head-bobs syncopating his speech, his emphatic index fingers gradually folding into fists of clenched power--stands in the middle of a park, lecturing no one in sight. Within seconds, his increasingly intense tirade has drummed up an imagined army of the oppressed, storming the citadels of what he calls the "racist pig ass power structure." His arms cradle an imaginary rifle, and he declares, in ascendant cadence, "Stick 'em up, motherfuckers. We come for what's ours!" Then, in the same breath with which he has been paraphrasing one of his greatest past performances, Bobby Seale continues, "And that crowd...went...wild."

Cut to a black-and-white clip, more than 30 years old, of an audience whose uncontrolled hysteria could have been stirred up by James Brown at the Apollo, and it's hard for anyone with a single strand of lefty militancy in her political RNA not to cheer along with the bravura opening of Jens Meurer's film Public Enemy. (The movie screens Wednesday, June 14 as part of this year's Juneteenth Film Festival.) The only surviving founder of the Black Panther Party, Seale is a documentarian's dream, compelling even when he's shilling for his barbeque cookbook on an early-Eighties talk show. And the other BPP alums interviewed--Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, and Nile Rodgers--are equally charismatic. Each is an expert performer: Rodgers as guitarist for the seminal disco band Chic, Joseph as a poet, Cleaver as a law professor, Seale as a practiced public lecturer. In fact, there's so much charisma onscreen that no filmmaker could hope to puncture the Panther mystique and recapture the party's history.

Granted, the German Meurer is more concerned with the "universal" theme of how revolutionaries age than with the specifics of the revolution that aged them. And admittedly, scenes of Jamal discussing how he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, or Rodgers dealing with his migration to tony Westport, Connecticut, are as gripping in their ambivalence as the rally footage is in its righteousness. But Public Enemy provides scant details for newcomers and fewer nuances for the well-versed: You wouldn't know that Huey Newton was shot by a street-level dealer in 1988, or that the BPP lingered on until 1982. Blink twice and even Eldridge Cleaver is erased from the record.

This gloss over the facts is hardly deceptive revisionism, but it does make more difficult the recovery of those elements in the Panthers' history most in danger of evaporating. Never the mere media product that detractors claimed, the Panthers' low-slung rifles and natty uniforms were, nonetheless, not only "good marketing," as Jamal admits, but also the only legacy bequeathed to the popular imagination. In one scene here, a younger sympathizer helps Seale to redesign his Web site, explaining how to further explicate the Panthers' imagery--leather jackets, black berets, dark shades. As this kid is a son of the advertising age, such visual manipulation comes naturally to him, and so it means less than it did when the Panthers helped pioneer its political uses. Contrast that with Cleaver's explanation of the way the Afro redefines beauty standards, and the exhilaration that comes from initially discovering that symbols can be reclaimed from the rich and powerful.

Of course, hair remains a vexed cultural issue in black America. Check out Martin Lawrence as undercover FBI agent Malcolm Turner, cocooned in folds of prosthetic flab to impersonate a corpulent Georgia matriarch in Big Momma's House. Malcolm's Momma is attending a self-defense class, where she does battle with a sadistic instructor who rips off her curly blond wig, revealing a head of natural kinky hair. Is Malcolm's cover blown? No--the other old ladies whip off their wigs likewise, and Momma becomes the spearhead of a granny liberation front.

Big Momma's House is undoubtedly Lawrence's "black" movie. With only one Caucasian partner cast for comic relief, and plenty of gags about soul food and old-time religion, the film courts an African-American audience that, judging from the raucous preview audience, is happy to accept the proposal. The plot's as billowy and unshaped as Momma's housedress. Basically, when the real Momma heads out of town, Malcolm investigates (and falls for) her granddaughter Sherry (Nia Long), suspected of abetting a bank robbery. But mostly, this is a series of set pieces--Momma is called on to testify in church, Momma smokes some neighborhood bullies in hoops, Momma has to midwife for a pregnant gal, Momma strips while the camera leers, We found us a woman with one fat ass and we're gonna make you look at every square inch of naked cellulite.

More important, the film may represent the culmination of Southern black culture's reascendance during the last decade. All icy-steel precision, Seale and his troops were the epitome of Northern urban cool, taking a hard, modernist approach to the "sentimental" down-home Christian pacifism of the South. Even as jeans slunk below the ass-line and sneaker tongues lapped the pavement, that urbanity retained its monopoly on black style in the popular imagination. But from the crunk rhyming of the Dirty South to the reclamation of Atlanta as a different kind of buppie stronghold, the locus of cultural power has recently sunk beneath the Mason-Dixon line.

Has such nostalgia also sunk to the depths of neocon revisionism? When Malcolm and Sherry finally come together, the nuclear family is restored--it's a love story, what do you expect? But why to the strains of "Oh Happy Day"? In church? In Georgia? Here's a longing for an old South that's worthy of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home": Small-town black folks are gossipy, a little foolish, and a little oversexed, but still more honest than those Northern city slickers. In this particular pastorale, even the cops are black, but there's still nothing a bigoted white separatist couldn't endorse: If we can't send 'em back to Africa, the film seems to say, maybe we can migrate 'em back south. Manipulating images is a tricky business. At least the Panthers were up-front about their motives. Pop culture isn't always so forthcoming.


Public Enemy screens at Walker Art Center on Wednesday, June 14 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the 2000 Juneteenth Film Festival, the first week of which also includes a program of shorts by African-American filmmakers (The Short and the Long of It), and weekend screenings of the original Shaft trilogy; for more information call (612) 375-7622. Big Momma's House is playing at area theaters.

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