The 50th Anniversary of ‘The Battle of Algiers’ and the Film’s Impact on the Black Radical Imagination
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The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its release, opening in more theaters across the country. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to disrupt and challenge the status quo, it also worth noting that 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. This edited excerpt from Sohail Daulatzai’s new book on the legacy of the film reveal only part of the influence The Battle of Algiers had on the Black radical imagination. The excerpt is followed by William Klein’s 1971 documentary on former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the largest antiwar protest in history took place throughout the world. But to no avail. President Bush dismissed the protestors as “a focus group,” unleashing the bombing campaign that was known as “Shock and Awe.” Soon after the invasion, in late 2003, the Pentagon invited the military brass to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, and the teaser read: ”How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
Well before the Pentagon screening, both U.S. Army intelligence operatives and the F.B.I. also screened the film in 1970 to try to silence domestic and global threats to U.S. power. The film was used as a training tool by the U.S. military as part of “Operation Phoenix,” and its larger strategy for the “pacification of Vietnam,” while the FBI screened it at the height of its vicious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which included the destabilization of leftist groups in the United States through the use of targeted assassination, disinformation campaigns, false arrests and the imprisonment of Black Panther Party members, in particular.
While security states were screening the film throughout the world, The Battle of Algiers was also embraced by a range of different leftist groups including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers. In the United States, it was a favorite among the Weather Underground, Arab students organizing in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and later in the 1990s as Chicano activists in Los Angeles mobilized around the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. In the 1960s and ’70s, the film was required viewing for the Black Panther Party, whose liberationist politics were linked to the anticolonial Third Worldism of Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.
This embrace of the film by the Panthers was part of a longer history of Black radical solidarity with internationalist struggles in general, and Algeria in particular. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Black Power means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.” And he was far from the exception. Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver said, “From its inception, the Black Panther Party saw the condition of Blacks in an international context, recognizing that the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America were fighting against was victimizing Blacks in the United States.”
Writers and activists from Hoyt Fuller to Martin Luther King had expressed admiration and solidarity with the Algerian struggle, viewing Black struggles in the U.S. in the context of anti-colonial rebellion taking place worldwide. James Baldwin also commented on Algeria and France’s brutal colonial war. He made many trips to Paris, and he often made reference to the violent mistreatment of Algerians in Paris, including the infamous Papon Massacre in October 1961 in Paris. Baldwin would write, “Algeria was French only insofar as French power had decreed it to be French. It existed on the European map only insofar as European power had placed it there. It is power, not justice, which keeps rearranging the map, and the Algerians were not fighting the French for justice but for the power to determine their own destinies.”
Malcolm X would also weigh in when discussing policing of Black people in Harlem, “Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state, and that is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state, the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army. … The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort to terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community.”
Theaters of War
The Battle of Algiers would screen at the New York Film Festival in September 1967, just after massive riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit had rocked the country. As the winds of Black Power began to gust, fanning the flames of urban unrest, Newsweek magazine reported, “Many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French, as if The Battle of Algiers were a textbook and prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come.” Three years later, at a screening of the film at the Thalia on the Upper West Side, the New York Times reported that there was “laughter and applause when bombs planted by Algerian women destroyed restaurants frequented by the French,” and “at one point a cry of ‘the United States is next’ rang through the small movie house.”
The film would also be screened in 1969 at Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House in Newark, New Jersey, which was the unofficial mecca of the Black Arts Movement. Formed the day after the assassination of Malcolm X, and hoping to extend the legacy of his revolutionary spirit, Amiri Baraka and others saw the Black Arts Movement as a vehicle in which poetry, literature, theater, music, and film were central to Black liberation. The Battle of Algiers was part of a series of films and performances that also included the 1964 film The Dutchman (based on Baraka’s play) and the 1968 documentary on the Spirit House called The New-Ark, a triple feature of radical films that reflected the global sensibilities of the era.
Emory Douglas, who was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and whose graphic artwork was the basis of the official newspaper The Black Panther, traveled to Algeria in 1969 and was there when Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver emerged in Algiers for the first annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. In my conversation with Douglas, he said that, at the time, The Battle of Algiers was the most influential film in his life, helping to shape his artistic and political vision “because it did what I was trying to do with the Panthers—create a culture of resistance through art.” Not surprisingly, the Panthers would use Algiers as the site to open the first International Section of the Black Panther Party due to their admiration of Frantz Fanon and the Algerian struggle of which he was a part, while in 1970, Francee Covington would write an essay titled “Are the Revolutionary Techniques Employed in The Battle of Algiers Applicable in Harlem?” in the seminal anthology The Black Woman.
The film would also emerge as part of a much covered and controversial 1971 trial in New York City of what was known as the Panther 21, one of whom was Afeni Shakur, mother of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, with whom she was pregnant at the time. Charged—and acquitted—of conspiring to explode bombs at department stores, police stations, and other locations throughout the city, the Panthers had reportedly drawn their inspiration for this plot from the film. During the trial, the prosecutor, in an attempt to sway the jury toward a conviction, showed the film to the jurors. Twice during the courtroom screening, when the French offered an Algerian rebel a fair trial, several Panthers laughed at what could only be assumed was the deep irony and parallel nature of their respective predicaments. For some of the jurors, the responses were equally striking. For juror Joe Rainato, this would be his fourth viewing. Another juror, Ben Giles, said the showing “saved me $3.50 because I was going to see it after the trial anyway,” and juror Ed Kennebeck, who was now seeing the film for a third time, said, “The film did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the D.A. suspected.”
Many Black activists saw in Ali La Pointe a mirror of Malcolm X—both were street hustler who were radicalized in prison and went on to become revolutionary heroes. Lerone Bennett, who was a vocal critic of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for what he saw as the film’s troubling and confusing political impulses, said “some will say: ‘you are criticizing the man (Van Peebles) for not filming The Battle of Algiers. How could he film The Battle of Algiers when there had been no battle of Algiers in America?” But that is precisely the point. There has been a Battle of Watts in America, and a Battle of Newark, and a Battle of Detroit. A Malcolm lived in Harlem, a King in Atlanta, and Angela Davis is in a California prison. And it is impossible to make a revolutionary black film in America without taking these realities into consideration.”
This brief alternative history to the film is vital if we are to grasp any lessons from it for today. The screening of the film at the Pentagon in 2003 and the racial logic of the “War on Terror” have sought to control the memory of The Battle of Algiers and, at the same time, have negated the central questions and concerns that decolonization, Black Power and the Third World Project sought to address: structural global inequality, racial capitalism resulting in wealth and resource exploitation of the non-white world; the policing and containment of Black life, continued military interventions into and destabilization of the Third World; and deeply entrenched asymmetries in diplomatic, political, and economic power between the West and the Global South. It is these structural violences that now sit at the heart of the “War on Terror,” and it is their systematic silencing of which The Battle of Algiers continues to be a haunting reminder.
Excerpt reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue by Sohail Daulatzai (Forerunners: Ideas First series). Copyright 2016 by Sohail Daulatzai.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of four books including Fifty Years of “The Battle of Algiers”: Past as Prologue and Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop. More of his work can be found at openedveins.com. Follow him @SohailDaulatzai.