When Entertainment Weekly endorses your four-DVD set about militant activists, it's practically a seal of approval from Popular Culture itself. That's what just happened to Roz Payne, when the magazine mentioned her recently released What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library two weeks in a row - first with a brief blurb and then an A- review. The Richmond resident's 12-hour project features documentaries shot during the 1960s, along with new interviews, relevant documents and a wealth of archival photographs.
Payne offered a sneak preview of her masterwork in mid-October at the 40th-anniversary reunion of the BPP in Oakland, the California city where the dissident group originated in 1966. "It was fabulous," she notes. "The rank-and-file was there from all over the country; places you never even thought about before in terms of the Panthers, like Kansas. They came with their sons and daughters. I saw people I've known since 1969."
Two years before that, in 1967, Payne was among a group of 30 New York filmmakers and photographers who formed Newsreel. This collective of cinematic guerrillas, which eventually took root across America, chronicled antiwar, black power, pro-union and women's liberation struggles.
Three Newsreel docs about the Panthers - "Off the Pig," "Mayday" and "Repression" - are included in the DVD set. Leaders such as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver deliver fiery speeches. These grainy, black-and-white films reveal the inflamed passions of an era when many thought revolution was right around the corner. Bill Stetson of Norwich served as executive producer and Nate Beaman of Burlington created the 3-D menu for the DVDs, which augment the historical footage with more contemporary segments. One of them shows Payne in France, chatting with Donald Cox, the Panther field marshal self-exiled in Algeria with the Cleavers when the organization splintered in the early 1970s.
Movement lawyer Beverly Axelrod, a 2002 casualty of emphysema, describes the political frisson surrounding her long-ago love affair with Eldridge Cleaver, which began when he was incarcerated in Folsom Prison. She helped him publish his landmark book, Soul on Ice.
Axelrod recalls how later, while laying out the first issue of the Panther newspaper, she chose an old picture of a pig to simply fill a space between stories. That random act gave a generation of rebels the lightning-rod image for denouncing police as racist, brutal and corrupt.
Among Payne's savviest coups is a discussion with The Man - Special Agent William A. Cohendet, whom she once dubbed "Agent WAC" because of his initials on FBI memos. At 80, he vividly recalls his three decades of running Panther surveillance at the agency's San Francisco operation.
Cohendet's memory is fuzzier when asked about the dirty tricks carried out by his colleagues in a program called COINTELPRO. Payne - who has been demanding freedom-of-information access to FBI files since the 1980s - reminds him about the incendiary, government-generated propaganda that defamed the BPP and its sympathizers.
He expresses regret about COINTELPRO's role in destroying lives: After allegations that married actress Jean Seberg was pregnant with a child fathered by a black radical, she lost the baby and later committed suicide. "It didn't hurt the Panthers," Agent WAC acknowledges. "It just hurt her."
Such law-enforcement vagaries appear to parallel what Entertainment Weekly calls "the complexities and contradictions of the Panthers."
The reported lore is occasionally perplexing. Did Panther icon Huey Newton marginalize his former comrades-in-arms after being released from jail in 1970? The charismatic leader "took all the claws out of the Panthers," Cohendet says.
"The only guns Huey wanted around were his," contends Cox, who points out that they were living in "freaky times."
Payne is nostalgic about those freaky times. She's maintained the Newsreel archives and a treasure trove of BPP material for four decades. "I thought of it as my home movies," she says. "I was just collecting information so the history wouldn't be lost."
And her effort hasn't stopped now that the DVD set is on the market. "The night before our reunion, there was a still photo exhibit in Oakland's Chinatown," Payne notes. "Bobby Seale stands up and tells a very animated story of the Panthers. My tripod breaks but I keep recording it, with the camera on my knee."
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