Puppet Show & Mayday
In August, writers Yasmina Price and Tobi Haslett joined us for a screening of two short works made in 1970 by the film collective May 1st Media in support of the Black Panther Party’s New Haven chapter. This is a transcription of their illuminating conversation.
INTRODUCTION BY YASMINA PRICE
Tonight we have a New Haven Black Panther Party double bill, with both films by May 1st Media Inc., which was made up of a group of Yale students, Nick Doob, Alberto Lau, Josh Morton, and Andre Ptaszynski. Acting as their adviser was Michael Roemer, the filmmaker and Yale professor who directed the 1964 Nothing But a Man, which Metrograph showed recently, starring Ivan Dixon and the jazz singer and agitator Abbey Lincoln. Both hinge on the murder of Alex Rackley in 1969, who was suspected of being an FBI informant as part of COINTELPRO, their counterintelligence program. Puppet Show focuses on Lonnie McLucas, a member of the Panthers who was convicted by a jury for Rackley’s death. The more spectacular and large-scale angle on all of this is captured in Mayday and the calculated trials that were mounted against Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins to discredit the organization, although the trial ended in a mistrial. In 1970, this resulted in large protests on Yale’s campus, for which the Yale film group made this cinema vérité–style documentary. The documentary shows the large crowds and somewhat infamous individuals who showed up, although certain notable characters like Allen Ginsberg and Jean Genet, who were also present, didn’t actually make it into the film. In ways that are almost too obvious to point out, the events of the film are not far removed from our present-day. The trials and tensions of Mayday 1970 were evidence of the same systematic racism, constructions of so-called Black criminality, and the police-state policy of the U.S. that have resurged in this summer of riots and protests. As we’re watching this, I would like to make note of Yale professor Kenneth Mills, one of the primary speakers at the rallies and who actually really captures the Panthers’ fundamental position of Black anti-imperialism with the U.S. as the primary enemy of revolution both globally and within the U.S. A mere two weeks after Mayday 1970, on May 13, Mills opened a three-day national strike conference at the law-school auditorium, by stating: “We must hold the line against the road of reaction on which the United States is poised for this road can only lead to fascism.” I look forward to discussing all this more with writer Tobi Haslett right after the screenings.
DISCUSSION WITH YASMINA PRICE & TOBI HASLETT
YP: One thing that struck me watching these films again, and especially with what we have on the horizon—which is universities and schools reopening—is how this is an entry point into seeing the college campus as a site on which political battles have and are being waged. Something I was interested to learn was that although the sort of common-sense idea of the late 1960s to the period immediately preceding what we saw is that student activism was basically synonymous with white students protesting Vietnam, there was actually an at least equal amount of militant activity on the part of Black students who were obviously agitating both to transform higher education but were also part of this larger network of Black freedom struggle activities, which would have been in part aligned with whatever the Panthers were doing. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the school as a site for this and the sort of dynamics going on there?
TH: Yeah, I mean something that I think is interesting about the Panther trial in particular is that it is remembered as an instance in which the white students at Yale University showed an extraordinary amount of solidarity and initiative and planning and in some ways dominated the events that took place. If you were to ask [former Boston Black Panther Party captain] Doug Miranda, who is still around and who I’ve spoken to, he thinks that the white students actually get too much credit, and that what’s being underplayed is the involvement of specifically Black organizers, and not only making liaisons with the university but also in getting people to come out. I don’t know what the accurate answer to the question is. One does have to admit that quite a lot of the faces in the Mayday program are white young faces that we can presume, whether they are Yale students or friends of Yale students, do belong to the kind of loose universe of the white student movement. What I think is kind of interesting is the degree to which the New Haven Panthers had to reach to other chapters of the organization in order to get people to come out in the first place. For instance, Doug Miranda, who gives the speeches and is in some ways the coordinator of the entire event, is from the Boston chapter, and what they had to do to make sure that the turnout was satisfactory was to tap into a broader network, which reached beyond the university campus. I think in New Haven in particular, the class question becomes really acute and I wasn’t there so I can’t say how much of this was lost in the swirl of events—but it is interesting that at the same time that the first generation of African American students to really advance into majority-white institutions and actually advocate for their own interests founded African American studies, assert themselves on the level of both syllabus and also representation in university organization for their own basic right to the university, which is also a right to class advancement—what was actually being articulated on another level was the specific claims of the Black working class and the Black working class in New Haven. So I think that’s not exactly explicit in these films, but it in an important overarching social fact.
YP: Absolutely. That makes me think of two moments in the film: one is—and I know this is a line that we both loved—when Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies is speaking and he does this sort of extraordinary rhetorical flourish where he uses the language of the Panthers to indicate their shared antagonism toward the U.S. state when he says something like, “America is devouring its young, and the Yippies and the broader countercultural movement don’t want to be part of America’s children for breakfast program.” Something I did enjoy in the documentaries were the different media snippets that we get, like the two moments where Nixon is speaking, and there’s the one where he’s saying that this is not going to be a Woodstock, which is funny because, as you pointed out, there is this majority component of the long-haired white counterculture demographic. But then the thing that Abbie Hoffman said in response to that is Nixon is wrong to say that it’s not going to be their Woodstock because he doesn’t want their politics separated from their culture, and those are always co-produced. And then the other thing that reminds me of too is when Kenneth Mills, that Yale professor, when he is speaking and directly addressing the majority-white crowd with the assumption that a decent number of them are Yale students and he has this sort of powerful invective that they not act from a place of sympathy but a place of solidarity. And he names the white working-class component, which I think also goes to the innate tensions between New Haven resident and individual people affiliated with Yale who obviously have so much more transient, if parasitic, hand in what was happening in the city. I think something that also comes out a few times is that it does seem like there was some agreement between the Panthers and Yale, in that neither wanted things to escalate into violence because—and there was a massacre of a few students in Ohio a few days later—the night right before May Day is when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia.
TH: Yeah, well the separation between culture and politics was being addressed not only by the Abbie Hoffmans of the world but also many people in the Black nationalist movement. There was a lot of internal strife about that. It is interesting to think about the difference between Woodstock and how basically storming the green presents one dichotomy between militant action and supposedly countercultural soft psychedelic expression. But, interestingly enough, in Puppet Show, George Sams [one of the Panthers convicted of murdering Alex Rackley] is introduced as a wily, conniving snitch, who can be identified as such because he’s wearing a dashiki, which is a very small moment that actually points to a very significant argument that appears in a lot of the both hagiographic and vilifying accounts of what happened with Black people in the ’60s. The distinction between cultural nationalist symbolism and the kind of militancy of the Panthers is often occluded, but there were huge debates within the Black Panthers as to whether or not you could take on an African name, whether or not you could be dressing in African attire—and most of the hardline Marxists/Leninists opposed that, especially in the Bay Area. People further on the East Coast, and this actually ended up being one of the tiny precipitators of the cleft within the Panthers, when the New York Panthers basically seceded, is that the latter wanted to adorn themselves in African garb and were predicating their entire political understanding on returning to Africa, at least in a spiritual sense. So it is an interesting moment to see how on the one hand you have the supposed cleaving reunion between the hippies and the militants on the white side, but also on the black side there’s this tension between cultural expression and militant action. I thought that was a weird symmetry within the films.
YP: That’s such an interesting reference as well, which I think is also weird because it’s undergirded by part of the pushback on some Panthers’ side to the daishiki and Black nationalism aspect as a strategy of surface performance, but, as we know, the Black Panthers as well were extremely reliant on the circulation of this very specific image and they needed their politics to in part be carried by the circulation of a visual cultural memory which became attached to a particular way of dressing. And it’s a point of tension that they’re lightly mocking what wouldn’t necessarily be in opposition to their own tactics. I think it’s also amusing, because obviously the puppet show is for children, that the cop is actually just a little pig, who doesn’t even speak but only oinks. I tend to think of the breakfast programs just purely in the material sense of feeding the kids, but it shouldn’t be surprising that they would have these as occasions for entertainment, which were also occasions for political education. And it’s frankly oddly effective, I was really sold on it.
TH: Yeah, I think that the film handled whether or not you were supposed to be sold on it really well. I mean obviously it’s made with complete solidarity with the Panthers, but I thought that formally speaking the way that sometimes you were just confronted with the flat puppet show image, that you were basically put in the position of a child sitting down on the ground and you were observing the puppet show with minimal critical distance allowed the suspension of disbelief to stay more or less intact, but then you see people working behind the scenes and there is this very quaint and self-conscious attempt to render the labor going into the puppet show and then a kind of encircling social effect, and obviously there’s an element of social responsibility in trying to portray the entirety of the universe that both creates and also is affected by the puppet show itself. But the majority of the show you actually might as well be watching the puppet show and there’s clearly a very real desire on the part of the filmmakers to recapture that specific experience. It also hadn’t occurred to me that there was ideological education going on at the particular breakfast programs, but of course there was—it’s also daycare. That’s one of the many kinds of reproductive labor that the Panthers actually saw to collectivize, which is keeping the kids entertained so that they don’t drive you crazy. In that movie The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 you see them doing sing-alongs, and I was like, of course they have sing-alongs, it was just also just daycare.
YP: In Mayday, too, to me it really wasn’t clear where the sound was coming from, when there’s that Black Panther chant coming from offscreen… But to your point about the suspensions of disbelief, and I guess the spectatorial position, I think it’s especially striking that although they allow us access to the process of the construction of this little theater, when it actually ends, we’re in the position of the kids being directly addressed by the Lonnie puppet. The audience is being interpolated as part of this question of justice and whose side we should be on. Another thing that took me aback in Mayday is, and it comes in as a title card, but something that Kingman Brewster, the then Yale President, said, that he didn’t believe that a Black revolutionary could be served justice in the U.S., and that’s really a shockingly accurate analysis coming from Republican patrician-class president of Yale, and I thought it was odd, but also it means that we’re getting so many different voices echoing a consistent line of thinking, which I guess comes down to an effectively edited documentary.
TH: Yeah, I was thinking about the end of the puppet show, which you pointed me to where he says, “How would you judge me?” And it’s predicated on the idea that the people—and he actually says the people who are watching the puppet show or the jury of his peers—and he says, “How would you judge me?” And it’s one of those strange moments where the alignment of the viewer of the film with the children sitting on the ground, I guess depending on who you are, but I do think it’s very historically specific, that alignment kind of comes apart, in part because one of the specific aims of the Black Panther Ten-Point Program was to release all Black people from jail and to insist that anyone who was going to be tried in the United States had to be tried by a Black revolutionary jury. And that was the new legal definition of being somebody’s peer, and I thought it was kind of interesting how whether it’s being directly or indirectly posed, that’s kind of what the last question is asking in film form. It very clear that the propagandistic—and I use that in a complimentary way—purpose of the last question for the kids sitting on the ground for the puppet show is, how would you judge me, you are invested with the power to judge me and I presume you would recognize the totality of the situation and not condemn me to death. But when it’s people either in the future or it’s white activists who are trying articulate some sort of solidarity with the Panthers, the degree to which they can even answer the question of how they can judge Lonnie is kind of universally blurred. And I was like, oh, that’s actually kind of clever, and I’m sure that the white filmmakers completely understood that. I guess it was their final reflexive gesture to insist that at the end of the day, there has to be at least this small formal space that accounts for the fact that we’re not members of the Black Panthers, we’re just trying to help.
YP: Absolutely, and I would say that that’s also echoed in the fact that they do choose this removed, cinema-vérité-style for the documentary as well. They don’t have a voiceover, they have no significant intervention in the events. And honestly that makes me think of this documentary as a kindred to the Agnès Varda’s documentary Black Panthers , from which she also very much removes herself, I think coming from an awareness similar to the May 1st collective of filmmakers, of knowing that as white filmmakers they can’t possibly understand the positionality of the Panthers they’re filming.
So I think we might end it here for tonight, unless you have any final thoughts.
TH: Nope, done with thoughts. •