William Klein’s early 1960s photographs would become canonical by the 80s, but the bulk of his artistic efforts in the intervening decades was devoted to political documentary. Ushered toward cinema by Left Bank-ers Marker and Resnais, the ex-pat’s agit-prop may never have matched the sophistication (or outright radicalism) of fellow circa-‘68 Parisians, but he was, nonetheless, there.
In the case of Eldrige Cleaver: Black Panther, “there” is Algiers, 1969. (The film screens on July 4th at BAM as part of their Contraband Cinema series; a discussion with Cleaver’s former wife Kathleen follows.) Klein’s film is wildly uneven—frontloaded with dubiously motivated skepticism, peppered with hammer-headed DVG-wannabe intertitles, and ultimately disintegrating into unfounded histrionics—a fist raised in bad faith. But, again, it’s the there that’s enough. The film finds Cleaver a reluctant exile, having jumped bail in the aftermath of a shootout with Oakland police that had left fellow Panther Bobby Hutton dead. Stranded in Algiers, justifiably fearing for his life should he return to “Babylon,” we see Cleaver as Panther ambassador to the Third World, holding a summit of international revolutionaries, and selling the symbolic importance of the struggle back home.
In terms of galvanizing charisma and rhetorical flourish, Cleaver was perhaps the least equipped of all Panther figureheads to have the role of international spokesperson foisted upon him. In candid interviews with Klein we see a revolutionary stifled by the contradictions of his current paralysis—the most fervently militant of Panther leaders left to make stump speeches about armed struggle either to Klein’s camera or to representatives of peoples already long-engaged in it. These claustrophobic interviews only serve to make the sequences in which Cleaver must rise to the occasion all the more stunning.
Beset from all sides (and in numerous languages) by a fiery audience at some kind of revolutionary press conference, Cleaver presides coolly and earnestly over every challenge from the crowd—careful to pay homage to the insurrectionary labors of his foreign compatriots, while never ceding the importance of overthrowing the US government (a cause that one senses seems, at least among his anti-imperialist African cohorts, well, middle class).
If Cleaver himself appears impotent and roundabout in his tet-a-tets with Klein, it’s because he is. The film was shot during an extraordinary pivot-point for the Panthers. Cleaver was on the heels of a presidential bid—concurrent with the gubernatorial campaign of one Ronald Reagan (as in “Fuck Ronald Reegin”); J. Hoberman would later say that 1968 California offered the American narrative “two possible presidents”. As Klein’s camera rolls, the trial of the Chicago 7 is unfolding an ocean away. Within two years Cleaver would be expelled from the BPPSD for refusing to curb his advocacy of violence. The Cleaver of the film is a man on the sidelines of the fight of his life.
As for Klein’s provocations, he may be just too wrapped up in his own iconoclastic sensibility to provide Cleaver an unchallenged platform. Not an innately arrogant methodology by itself, but the filmmaker’s high-handed requests for clarification always put Cleaver on the back foot, forcing him to recapitulate his arguments on terms that are not his own, and undermining the raison de etre of the film (these are 1969 stakes: what’s to be gained by one-upsmanship?). Huey Newton was gifted at reorienting Panther rhetoric in the face of implicitly disempowering/demonizing questions, capitalizing on just such opportunities to slyly play PR ball while never allowing it to distort his own ideas. Cleaver seems unable or uninterested in navigating such briar patches with Klein.
Although the cracks in Cleaver’s armor, visible in these scenes, might make for a more complex document, such historical nuance is only laudable from our armchair vantages at BAM. When Klein challenges Cleaver on his stance on violence, one desperately wants to believe that the segment was shot before the murder of Fred Hampton by Chicago police late that same year. Agree with Cleaver or not, it seems a repellently condescending qualm to raise to a man who genuinely believes he and his family’s lives are in danger. Cleaver’s lawyer puts it best: “I don’t superimpose my own white background to tell a black militant how he should conduct himself or comport himself.”