Bobby Seale rules in Public Enemy. Jens Meurer’s thematically fascinating but stylistically undistinguished doc is a walk down Memory Lane with four former Black Panthers who, each in their own way, still practice the commitment so emblematic of the old days of the counterculture.
“Stick’em up, motherfucker, this is a hold-up. We come for what’s ours”, says Seale when the co-founder of the Black Panther Movement – and the only living grandfather of the Black Revolution – reenacts one of his characteristic actions from the late sixties. A former “hellraiser against the racist pig power system,” Seale’s features have softened over the years, but his stance certainly hasn’t. Better living conditions for the “Afro-American” community is still high on his agenda, and Seale doesn’t seem to have tired of spreading the word to whoever wants to lend an ear. According to Meurer, the FBI has done its best to keep Seale out of a job, but the tireless man never panicked. Instead he went on and published a BBQ cookbook.
The other main characters in Public Enemy are Jamal Joseph, Nile Rodgers and the most famous ‘femme’ Panther after Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver. Their youthful political activism hasn’t turned into a livelihood for any of the now middle-aged subjects. Closest comes Kathleen Cleaver, who works as a law professor and remains actively committed to the cause. Rodgers – the least interesting of the lot – has made a fortune in the music business: as an artist, but also producing big names such as David Bowie, Rolling Stones and Madonna. He currently works in a swimming pool with built-in waves!
His old friend Jamal Joseph stays closer to his roots, although he could easily afford not to. After serving nine years in jail, Joseph now works as a playwright and film director, but also spends time supervising CityKids, a multi-racial workshop for neglected and disadvantaged kids. Although he isn’t bitter, Joseph sums up the Black Panther experience like this: “We used to believe that the Panthers who died, did so for a cause. The truth is: they died in vain. It was all vanity.” The words smell of defeat, but Joseph is a living example of the opposite: a committed, loving entrepreneur who breathes faith and self-esteem into his fellow beings.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X died without giving up their ideals. The four people portrayed here survived – and adapted to the reality they so vehemently tried to change. Does that make their struggle less heroic? Not according to Jens Meurer.