Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

New posts: Frank Zappa & Bobby Seale

Cultural history has everything to tell us about our present dilemmas which is my simple and short explanation of 2why I’vebobby-seale010203 devoted the majority of my professional writing life to researching the lives of the heroes and sheroes of American arts and letters and where they meet the political and social issues of our own lives and times. When my last two assignments concerned two iconic men who made an imprint on the culture at large in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I must admit I paused to check if I was locked in some kind of retro-groove, reliving a past that I wasn’t quite old enough to participate in firsthand. Though very quickly, it became clear to me that both subjects made contributions to the national dialogue that remain of absolute and vital relevance to the here and now. It is precisely that reason why two very serious people, Frank Zappa and Bobby Seale, are of interest to me…

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words opened in New York and Los Angeles over the weekend and goes into wider release on July 1.  I recently interviewed the film’s director, Thorsten Schütte, in San Francisco and we talked about Zappa’s lifelong commitment to freedom of expression.  Read the entire article in Down With Tyranny!.

The week prior, I had the rare opportunity to attend a live Q&A between Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and San Francisco hip hop emcee and activist, Sellassie. Again, I reported on it for Down With Tyranny! (and I hope you’ll read my impressions and other contributions there).  Though the meeting between generations betrayed the proverbial gap,  it’s been gratifying to watch these kinds of alliances unfold along with the new movement for racial and economic justice since the 2011 publication of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. At the time of publication, there was no such movement in place, though the persistence of the leaders of the ’60s, as well as the idea of musicians and student leaders playing a role in bringing the next generation to consciousness, are what inspired me to write the book in the first place. I hope to begin revisions to the text soon and deliver an updated edition of the book in 2018. Until then, thanks for reading.

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, new article, , ,

Black History: Interview with Stanley Nelson, Director of Black Panthers-Vanguard of the Revolution

In October of 1966,  Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combating

Huey Newton by Stephen Shames

Huey Newton photographed by Stephen Shames

police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”I’m interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements,” says Nelson. “I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to.”  Though hailing from the East, Nelson was exposed to his local Panther chapter as a teen; he considered joining for about a minute, but opted to pick up a camera instead of a gun. Pursuing freedom narratives throughout his career as a documentarian, it  was only natural that over time, as an African American observing Black lives, the story of the Panthers was a natural for his historic oeuvre, though he could not have predicted the timelessness of the story and the never ending cycle of police brutality in communities of color, combined with young people’s need to invent new ways to resist.

“In the last year and a half, when we were close to locking down the film, Ferguson happened,” explains Nelson. Of course he knew police brutality, and the need for better schools and housing were still relevant (“It’s why I wanted to do the film seven years ago,” he says) so the fact matters became more urgent was simply history taking its course.

“Because of recent circumstances, it’s opened a door to a conversation where people don’t wish to condemn the Panthers outright or at first glance,” he says.  “They are more moved to think about the fact African Americans organized to defend their community. A year ago, they might’ve said, ‘Defend their community from what?” but people wouldn’t say that now.”

As the story goes, from their incredible rise to their notorious fall, the sight of young, mobilized Black people caught fire with the media and sympathizers on the ground as  BPP chapters sprung up around the country and even Hollywood (Brando, Fonda) got down for the cause. At the same time, law enforcement was taking notes: By the late ’60s, J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented COINTELPRO program was full blown. Nelson allows all the players in the dramatic take down of the Party to speak to its highs and lows.

#10 Fred Hampton at Dirksen Federal Building. Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira

Fred Hampton photo by Paul Sequeira

“We wanted geographical diversity, and talked to lot of Panthers, men and women. I knew early on, I wanted to tell certain stories, like the murder of Fred Hampton and the LA shootouts, so we found Panthers in the Chicago and LA chapters involved in those events,” he says.   “We also wanted to interview as many cops, FBI agents and informants as possible,” he explains.  Conversely, events like the UCLA murders of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were left out as were stories of party sympathizers like H. Rap Brown and Angela Davis (there are also no contemporary interviews with former party leaders Seale and David Hilliard). Plenty of filmmakers, scholars and Panthers themselves have attempted historical overviews of the Party, but award-winning filmmaker Nelson (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) has landed on something close to a definitive reading of its politics and people, in all their glory and contradictions.

“I never know why people talk or don’t talk,” says Nelson, “I never ask them. I’m just happy when they do.”

Filed under: film, Interview, , , , ,

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