Black Panther Woman

By Matilda Dorman

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Black Panther Woman (2014) unfolds a terrible history in a very careful way, slowly peeling back the public perception of a political movement to reveal the lived experience of a woman at its core. Blending black and white archival footage with colourful home video of the Australian Black Panthers, director Rachel Perkins uses the documentary format to evoke the lived reality of the movement through the experiences of well known Indigenous blues musician and radio host presenter, Marlene Cummins. Cummins is admired as a strong woman throughout the Indigenous community, but scoffs at that description in the film.

With interviews from Black Panther Party members around the world, the film highlights the rich discourse between American black and Australian black activism, framing this as a beautiful synergy of strength informing strength. The film centres on Marlene’s invitation to attend the International Black Panthers reunion conference in New York. This acknowledgement, despite the Australian Black Panther Party being in operation for less than a year, sparks a beautiful exchange between the women members of various international Black Panther groups, and the shared atrocities they had to endure and reminding us that “The black women were making the sacrifice.”

While Black Panther Woman was made five years ago, it carries a very modern conversation. The #MeToo movement has recently seen decades of women’s silence in the face of abuse called out within multiple industries. However, public discussion of #MeToo has often lacked an intersectional focus and centred on the abuser and not the abuse. In contrast, Black Panther Woman tells the story from an Indigenous women’s perspective and deliberately leaves out the voices of abusers. Perkins chooses not to insult the subject matter with diversionary concepts like “alleged” or by giving abusers the chance of redemption. In fact, not a single white Australian is given the mic and we never hear from any men who don’t believe Marlene’s story or deny the larger history of silently abused women. This allows the film to fully take on the voice of Marlene. Through this, it expresses the burden of abuse within Indigenous communities, drawing our attention to the experience of abused women who must bear the context of black men being demonised: the sick irony of the police being framed as an avenue for justice in a time of rampant abuse against Indigenous men and women, and the naïve and ultimately destructive call of white feminists to take up their cause, giving a society already so geared towards hating and harming Indigenous men yet another reason to do so.

“Black women were making the sacrifice.”

Black Panther Woman is a conversation with a past that sits on your back like a weight, heavier the more it’s ignored. 40 years of silence for Marlene has held her back from her goals, homeless periods and an addiction to gambling. But by telling Marlene’s story, Black Panther Woman brings something back to the conversation that has been lost. This film does not waste time on the world being large, the opposing views being many. It does not waste time on the accused. What these women have to say is not an accusation, it’s a lived truth that is felt universally across Indigenous nations and communities. In a nation like ours, where Indigenous women’s issues have so long been buried beneath denial and conscious erasure, the film industry bears a responsibility to undo that bias. This film feels like an open letter to the reality that Australia has a long and lurid history of not caring about much outside the white mainstream, and not caring for long. This snapshot of Marlene Cummins, included and celebrated at the 40 year reunion of the Black Panther Party conference, is doing the legwork that Australian media has yet to do.   

Director and producer Rachel Perkins isn’t here to fill in the gaps of your education. She isn’t here to list historic facts and interview everyone that was there. She’s here to present the Black Panther Woman’s life own words.

And that she has. Beautifully.

Black Panther Woman screens as part of the MWFF Closing Night & Shorts Awards at Palace Kino Cinemas, Sunday 24th February, 7pm. Get your tickets here.

Whitney Monaghan