In times of revolution, we often look to art for past instances of our present lives or some semblance of education on how to express ourselves in our current circumstances. This is what drew me to La Chinoise, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and Black Panthers, a short film by Agnès Varda. What struck me while watching these films was that while both depicted the youth of revolution and the all too familiar fierceness behind the eyes of a young person scorned by society, there was a clear dichotomy in the overwhelmingly stark Whiteness of one in contrast to the warm, familial Blackness of the other.
It’s hard not to see La Chinoise as semi-satirical. The characters act on the ends of extremes, from being rowdy and making raucous noises to having demure, stoic conversations about Maoism and Communism, and even love, all in the same tone. There’s curdling tension between Véronique and Guillaume as they study Mao beside one another, but as they discuss falling out of love, they do so in the same theoretical, cold manner. But despite this, their unenthusiastic approach to radicalism feels partially rooted in reality.
In this small radical cell of students, we see them studying and debating all day and night — they hold classes and their walls are inscribed with radical ideas and quotes. But, they also leave us with the catchy “Mao Mao,” and interrupting orchestral bursts that guide us throughout the film. I couldn’t help but feel that all of this — as it culminates in their increasing agitation and need to express violence as rebellion — represents an astute self-awareness to their radicalism. Eventually, there is a divide in the group. The youthful abandon that often interpolated their classroom and debate sessions comes to a point where they plan to assassinate a major Soviet leader.
I can only speak to my own experience, and in my own experience of becoming a more defined leftist (ideology still unknown), I have observed White leftists, especially online today, have a different view on revering the icons of whom we’ve read from versus the community of the revolution. Watching this film in companion with Black Panthers, reinforced that idea further. Although some of the characters in La Chinoise were actual young revolutionaries at the time, it’s still a movie, and therefore, a performance. One could argue that even those in a documentary like Black Panthers are performing, given the camera provides its own presence into the situation.
Right at the start of this film, it pans across a panel that reads, “Black is Honest and Beautiful.” This sets the tone, documenting not only the leaders of the Black Panther Party, but also highlighting the community they aim to serve. In direct contrast to the primary-colored and grey-toned La Chinoise, the composition of Black Panthers is full of warmer tones, painting the revolution as an inviting gathering of which everyone is a part.
The militancy of the Black Panther Party was a direct response to the villainization of the Black community and the constant racist White supremacist threat. However, as Black Panthers showcases their efforts to get Huey P. Newton out of jail, it shows that their goals still maintained a commitment to the soul and heart of the Black community.
Marx should be a required reading for us all; but as colonized people, we draw a vastly different meaning from his texts, and have revolutionaries of color that we derive our understandings from instead. Omar Diop, a Black revolutionary, only received a short 5-minute appearance in Godard’s film in which he lectured the White Maoist protagonists on philosophy and liberation. This appearance markedly shows the role of Black leftists in the realm of white ones — we serve to educate, as their focus sees studying as the epitome of being a leftist of any variety. In the film, Véronique says, “That’s exactly why I keep on studying. To understand first, and then to change, and then to formulate a theory,” but ultimately, they find themselves thinking that solely on the basis of study, they are equipped to assassinate a Soviet leader.
Black Panthers demonstrates the reality of the need of larger community and the innate integration of culture and revolution that colonized people exhibit. Huey P. Newton is interviewed from jail in Varda’s film, and it’s wholly heartbreaking. His study is interrupted and blocked: during his imprisonment, officers revoke his books and make him censor his writing. Therefore, in contrast, the recklessness of the white French Maoists in the Godard film reveals exactly who is permitted to study and display acts of rebellion.
There is a segment in Black Panthers where a group of young people explain why they’re gathered at the rally for Huey P. Newton. One of them says, “Since the Black community is not a reading community, we talk to them; show them examples. In our paper we have pictures so they can see what is going on.” This is where I find that white leftists are often fighting for, and studying, the means of freeing a generalized ‘working class’ without realizing the nuances of it. There is a reason why the Black community is not depicted as well-read — we experience the direct struggle of both class, race, and white ideals of gender.
La Chinoise is the direct antithesis to Black Panthers in that these white radicals can afford to study for a summer, disband and abandon their radicalized posts, and even plot to murder an official. But, in the very real world, radical or not, working class Black people are accused, shamed, killed, and more for their mere existence. Are they able to create community to study? Are they afforded the benefit of not being demonized, as the Black Panther Party was, just for educating and protecting their community? Even in the fact that Agnés Varda was white, and entered their Black space to observe and film, points to this idea that Black people being radical is seen as an anomaly.
For the white revolutionaries in Godard’s film, they leave their Maoist haven, making plans to return to their previous lives once the summer of rebellion is through. For the Black Panthers, revolution is a way of life — it is permanence and presence. Huey P. Newton, in real life, and at the end of this film, is deemed guilty for manslaughter. Today, Black revolutionaries are still criminalized and killed simply for being radical. Others can take on radicalism as a means of study and intrigue rather than necessity. It is not lost on me either that these films were released only three years apart, and yet, they reflect two different realities.
I don’t wish to discredit anyone, but as a colonized person — a Black woman specifically — I know our revolutions don’t come to an end. For white radicals, the commitment to anti-racism, specifically anti-Black racism, is not on their radar. It appears that it is more important for them to study rather than act, and to abandon the idea that radicalism is an aesthetic instead of a lifestyle. Present times are showing us who is actually willing to follow the commitment, and who participates and studies when it’s convenient. I find that although we are fleeting in the imaginaries of the White leftist revolution and aftermath (comparable to aforementioned Omar Diop), we have no way to escape this radical-thinking life of permanence and presence.