The fact that the civil rights movement turned into a rifle- wielding, cultish Maoist sect is worthy of a 1,000-page history volume from Knopf. It deserves this treatment because, of course, my flip description of the Black Panther Party (active from its righteous founding in 1966 in Oakland, California—via Stokely Carmicheal's Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama—until its muddled demise in the early 1970s) doesn't do justice to souls like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
The party's dedicated, young founding duo, influenced by French-educated intellectual Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X (good god, the '60s were heady), did have some success turning their revolutionary ideas into a practical fight to correct the wrongs against America's impoverished urban black community.
Absent a definitive, accurate tome on the Panthers, though, it's the militant imagery—shades, black berets, leather jackets, raised fists, slogans and placards, bullhorns and rifles—that defines them and, for many Americans, black politics. The imagery they created, much of it self-conscious, was so lasting and powerful that nearly 40 years on, Barack Obama is still having to contend with the Black Panthers' cultural legacy in his bid for the White House.
At a glance, photographer Stephen Shames's set of Black Panther Party stills on display at the University of Washington's Odegaard Library (a fantastic, easygoing, anti-gallery setting for enjoying the art, by the way) does little to expand our superficial takeaway on the Panthers.
Shames, the exhibit notes tell us, had unprecedented access to the Panthers (the photos at UW are from a 151-page book of photos he just released, The Black Panthers). But there's an excess of images we're already accustomed to: homogenous formations of Panthers—arms folded, dark sunglasses, Stalinist lineups, rifles—striking prefab poses at "Free Huey" rallies or at protests in front of California courthouses. (The imagery is so fixed that even the iconic photograph of Newton in the wicker chair appears in many of these, a photo inside a photo.)
However, there are hints in the otherwise standard-issue photos of intimacy and life that release the images from their flat trappings. There are the Black Panther Party "captains" wearing beautiful, almost feminine African necklaces flanking BPP chairman Seale as he speaks at a rally in 1968; there's Kathleen Cleaver (wife of BPP "minister of information" Eldridge Cleaver) shattering the grim, staid, neofascist faces of the male party members in one photo with her dynamite Afro; there's the little boy, sitting on the edge of a makeshift stage as Seale bellows into a microphone, sporting a gleeful little-kid smile at something outside the tiresome frame.
These are the moments that pump oxygen into the photos, and they're the ones that Shames was clearly after. In fishing for some humanity, he stages a few photographs. There are two silly ones hanging side by side in the UW show, of Newton at home in his hipster apartment, with its concrete-block bookcases, stereo speakers on the floor, funky lamps, and piles of political magazines, books, and jazz records.
In one of these photos, Newton has his shirt off—dude was built—and is wearing comfy white pants. He looks like he just rolled off the couch to put on a record (he's striking a pose with a Bob Dylan record in his hands—Dylan? really?). In the other, shirt off again, in what looks like a Dolce & Gabbana ad from last Sunday's New York Times, Newton is going in to kiss a long-legged beautiful woman in a white minidress who's leaning into his body in the groovy kitchen.
These hints—the necklaces and smiling children—and the domestic setups reframe the humorless Panthers. While the Newton beefcake shots are obviously staged, the fact that he was up for doing a "fashion shoot" shows a goofy playful side that doesn't come out in the self- conscious Black Power shots.
These moments prepare us for the best picture in the series: Seale and his wife—one imagines after an organizing event—sitting at a bar cradling their elementary-school-age son, Artie, who's cozily lying on the bar as his parents absentmindedly moon over him in a breather between rallies.
A similarly honest photo captures a Panther at a nighttime rally—in a regular hat, not a beret—standing against the swaying California brush holding a sleepy little boy on his arm. Their faces tell a more powerful political story than all the rifles and scowls as the searchlight catches them against the trees.