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The Hills Are a Lie: Hollywood, History, and Panther

by Deuce of Clubs

(First published in Planet Magazine, 06jun1995)

 

"Peter Pan premiered in London in 1904. In it Peter told the Darling children that if they believed strongly enough that they could fly, they would fly. Barrie soon began to hear from parents with children who had taken Peter's word literally, and hurt themselves in consequence. Barrie at once included in the play a cautionary statement that the children could fly, but only if they had first been sprinkled with "fairy dust." From then on, fairy dust being in short supply, all has gone well." (Clifton Fadiman)

It's been a long time since anyone had that kind of faith in stage or screen. There are always holdouts, though: I used to know a big fan of The Sound of Music who managed to snag a seat at a lunch table with Maria von Trapp herself, shortly before the latter's death. She tried to get the conversation going by telling Trapp what a wonderful film she thought The Sound of Music was. Without even looking up from her soup Trapp replied with what by then must have been her stock answer: "It's a nice story. It's not my story...."

Turns out the Trapp family wasn't chased through Berlin by Nazis. (The borders of Nazi Germany weren't even closed until after the Trapps left.) They weren't chased by anybody, in fact. They simply made up a cover story about a mountain climbing expedition, went to Italy, and hopped a ship to the States.

Of course I realize that a movie about what really happened to the Trapp family would be about two minutes long—just long enough for that little girl to sing "So Long, Farewell." I also realize that historical detail has never been of great concern to Hollywood; since Cecil B. DeMille and the early days of filmmaking, Hollywood's involvement with historiography has never been thought of too highly.

But things have gotten worse since Cecil B. Far worse. The distortions of films like The Sound of Music or Chariots of Fire are comparatively small and harmless. More serious, both in scope and implication, are the distortions of the political films of the last decade or so, such as In the Name of the Father, JFK, Malcolm X, and (perhaps the most egregious offender) the abysmal Gandhi (anyone who thinks they know Gandhi should read Richard Grenier's The Gandhi Nobody Knows for shocks throughout).

Now, thirty years after The Sound of Music, Maria von Trapp has morphed into Mario Van Peebles, and the end product is the same...yet different. Where Hollywood used to sacrifice truth for story, now truth is sacrificed instead to ideology. Panther, directed by Peebles and written by his father (former blaxploitation director Melvin Van Peebles, the force behind one of the genre's weirdest, 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song), is the latest in Hollywood's revisionist genre. Sweetback and Son are back—and they've apparently been taking Oliver Stone's correspondence course in historical distortion, so much so that even former Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver have attacked the film for its lack of accuracy. (Melvin and Mario claim that Seale is bitter because he has his own movie deal in the works and because it's Huey Newton who gets the hero treatment in their film). Not that the Van Peebleses deny the film's loose treatment of the truth; they merely dismiss it as artistic license. (Similarly, Kadeem Hardison, who plays the lead in Panther, excuses the film's infidelities on the grounds that the narration includes the line "story has it that....")

But Panther is most troubling because, by romanticizing leftist revolutionaries it clouds the picture of what were really like. Back in the heyday of the Panthers, Tom Wolfe reported the "Radical Chic confusion" of one Park Avenue matron after having heard a Panther speak: "He's a magnificent man," she admitted, "but suppose some simple-minded schmucks take all that business about burning down buildings seriously?" The 1967-1968 arson and rioting in dozens of U.S. cities should have definitively answered that question for her.

At times Panther seems to want us to believe that the main purpose of the Black Panther Party was to serve free breakfasts and hand out Ladmo bags to children. It isn't that Black Panther violence isn't depicted—the film includes plenty of gunplay, mainly between Panthers and police. But the police are portrayed as stereotypical film villains, cartoon-style bad guys. More importantly, the violence is almost without context because of the filmmaker's unquestioning and casual presentation of the Panther devotion to Chairman Mao, who gets heavy product placement in the film (along with Fritz Fanon, Marx, and, of course, Che Guevara). The Panthers are shown peddling Mao's "Little Red Book," but that's about it. If you really want to gauge the extent of Black Panther Mao-worship, try reading Huey Newton's book Revolutionary Suicide sometime. (Cocktail party factoid 1: the last words of the Rev. Jim Jones were quoted from Newton's book. Cocktail party factoid 2: Revolutionary Suicide was, in all probability, ghost-written.)

Do Melvin and Mario Van Peebles mean to support Maoist ideology? Given the disastrous consequences of Maoism, one would think they would have a responsibility to condemn it, especially given the film's approving quotations of Malcolm X's slogan "By any means necessary"—but they remain silent. Their affectionate depiction of Maoist revolutionaries puts them in good company these days: faces of mass-murderering revolutionaries are turning up everywhere these days. Details recently reported on "guerilla chic" (or Radical Chic, as Tom Wolfe called it): clothing modeled after that worn by Mao, Castro, Che, and the Black Panthers. Apparently mass murder isn't taken as seriously as it used to be: last week on Melrose Place one of the female characters wore a print blouse featuring the pleasant, smiling face of Mao Zedong, murderer of only God knows how many millions. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise, what with thousands of teenagers emulating Axl Rose, Evan Dando, Trent Reznor, and others by wearing Charles Manson t-shirts. Who knows, maybe next fashion season will see the comeback of the Hitler mustache.

Mao may be the cat's meow these days, but the Second Amendment is considered by many to be seriously out of fashion, and therefore it's interesting to see with what approval the film handles Panther militarism. Like Melvin Van Peebles's low-budget films, Panther has a certain incongruity of tone. When a Panther cadre bursts into the California State Capitol with drawn weapons, the soundtrack practically weeps with swelling sentimental music. If it was today's militias being depicted, the soundtrack would more likely be the "Imperial March" from Star Wars. Yet when Newton rails against government efforts "to keep the people disarmed and powerless," and vows that the armed and uniformed Panthers will "exercise our consitutional right to carry arms and defend ourselves," he sounds awfully contemporary. Interestingly, at the line, "You try to take our weapons, we'll shoot you!" the crowd in the movie theater cheered.

The film ends with a conspiracy theory having to do with the government joining with the Mafia in a conspiracy to flood America's ghettos with drugs. That Melvin and Mario are defending this idea with deadly seriousness on the talk show circuit should be enough to indicate how seriously their interpretations of history should be taken.

Unfortunately, Panther and films like it usually do well enough at the box office to ensure more of the same. (Oliver Stone hasn't gone broke making them.) The cinematic mangling of history is a timeworn cliche, but Hollywood's most egregious offenders keep insisting that their mangled histories, lacking any trace of supporting facts, are nevertheless true. Though there's still no sign of fairy dust, they keep telling us we can fly. And that can be a dangerous thing.

© Deuce of Clubs


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