Black Panther Woman, the newest work of director Rachel Perkins, is a compact documentary, in both its scope and length. The film tells the story of Marlene Cummins and her experience with both the short-lived Brisbane chapter of the Black Panthers and of the abuse she endured from men within the Indigenous community. Perkins has made it clear that neither she nor Cummins want to overreach – at the film’s premiere, Cummins was clear in maintaining that she has no interest in “naming and shaming” individual men in the community, and Perkins’ has stressed that the film tells no one’s story but hers. Of course, it’s a story that is simultaneously intensely personal and inextricably political, and so is its telling.
Black Panther Woman reaches its greatest emotional pinnacles through content, rather form, though the archival footage of protests and stills are deployed to unsettling affect. The rough-grained, high-contrast black and white shots, often accompanied by an ominous, building thrum that slips between ambience and foreboding rhythm, are an uncomfortable reminder to the white viewer of a righteous discontent that has been often muted in mainstream media. A number of recurrent stock photographs provide an emotional thermometer for the film. One such shot of four young Indigenous girls staring uneasily into the camera feels noticeably heavier each time its used, pushing the audience to self-consciously recognise the weight of Cummins’ experience, while images of police are made all the more seemingly implacable by their photographic paralysis.
The most harrowing details of Cummins’ story are presented without a dramatic shift in style, with Perkins choosing to let the film be carried by its humanity. The documentary is no exposition, or finely tuned polemic – it owns its subjectivity, and shares, rather than transmits, Cummins’ story. It is a particularised history.
And like all histories, it plays the present just as it plays the past, reflexive rather than object. Black Panther Woman is anxiously self-aware of its reception and its own context, among both the Indigenous and white community. White Australia – especially our politicians and our media – have long held Indigenous communities in their entirety responsible for individuals, effectively weaponising their suffering against them.
“If we pointed the figure at one black man, they’d say it was all black men,” Cummins tells the camera in interview. Her certainty wavers as she articulates the sacrifices of women in the name of Indigenous solidarity, a violence absorbed through oppression, underpinned by a code of silence – “Is that what you want to hear?” Cummins asks, simultaneously addressing both audience and filmmaker. Perkins replies from off-camera, “I want to know why you want to tell this story,” and the documentary pulls to its second level, acknowledging itself in political and cultural context.
It’s also here that it becomes apparent that the film also works as a reflexive tribute to the bonds of mutual recognition and support between Cummins and her peers. Off-screen, Perkins and Cummins have a friendship stretching over decades, and though the positioning of subject-director is always asymmetrical, Black Panther Woman is still a dialogue between them. Gently exploring Cummins’ vulnerabilities and insecurities, Perkins shifts the emphasis in perspective towards and away from her. Cummins’ repeatedly talks of her desire for a formal education, thwarted by systemic disadvantage, and the wistful allure of academia is held in the time the camera to pause on certain shots, on well-stuffed bookshelves – Kathleen Cleaver’s, no less – and the hard plaques of an American university. Perkins, though, does not let the tone settle there. Scenes of Marlene drawing the applause and approbation of an international conference of former Black Panthers, of hugging Cleaver, walking hand in hand with a fellow ex-Black Panther woman provide the counterpoint to Cummins’ professed sense of lack, drawing the reification of academia into ambiguity.
Black Panther Woman also undermines the vertical dichotomy of peaceful civil rights activism, as espoused by Martin Luther King, and the militancy of the Black Panther Movement. The comparison is made repeatedly throughout the film, both in direct address and in rather obvious implication – the film closes with Marlene in front of Martin Luther King’s grave – but refuses to decry either, representing both as a legitimate, empowering ideologies born out of oppression. In doing so, Black Panther Woman both maintains its carefully personal specificity, and returns the question of legitimacy.
Black Panther Woman makes no claims to being a work of superior cinematography, or aesthetic value. Indeed, given the style and that it clocks in at a fleeting 57 minutes, I suspect the film was made for television, not cinema. It’s hard to tell whether its brevity limits, or rescues the film. The fragile political and cultural viability of a film that deals, even in singularity, with systematic oppression in one of it’s most taboo forms is protected by the undeniable legitimacy of a black woman telling her own story, one of being pinned at the intersection of misogyny and racism.