Seeing opposite: The Battle of Algiers and “colonial analogy” in the “Panther 21”
The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Shakur et al (1970)—as of 1972, the longest and costliest Supreme Court case in New York State history—concerned the indictment of twenty-two members of the Black Panther Party. Charged with “an over-all plan to harass and destroy [the] elements of society which the defendants regarded as part of the ‘power structure,’” the case reads as an exposé on racism and classism in the U.S. at the time. During the trial, the defense and prosecution, the defendants, the jury, the judge, and members of the public sat together through a screening of The Battle of Algiers. The 1966 pseudo-documentary, by Gillo Pontecorvo, centers on a 1956-7 campaign of urban guerilla warfare against French colonial forces in Algeria’s capital city. Arguing the defendants used the film as a training manual for their alleged plan to bomb several public spaces and administrative buildings in the New York Metropolitan area, the prosecution presented it as evidence. While the defense, representing the BPP members, worried the screening would fuel a conviction of their clients, the opposite occurred. Indeed, at a time when the national “establishment” often marginalize those fighting against racist U.S. policy and European colonization, one of its branches—the DA’s office and the concomitant executive branch in the nations largest city—appropriated a highly affective film championing those very causes as evidence. As this paper argues, despite the DA’s intentions, the maneuver publically linked anti-colonial sentiment with inner city “radicalism,” a gesture that exposed profound equivalences between them.
1st prize winner of the Friends of Fondren Library Graduate Research Awards, 2018. This paper was originally prepared for Course HART 659, Fall 2017: Cinemas of Urban Alienation, given by Professors Lida Oukaderova and Fabiola López-Durán, Department of Art History.