Meet Dorothy Berry, the Black Film Center/Archive’s 2015-2016 Graduate Assistant. In addition to completing her graduate studies (Masters of Arts in Ethnomusicology and Master of Library Science with an Archives Focus), Berry has played an important role in contributing to the success of the BFC/A’s year-round programming opportunities, including as programmer of the Fall 2016 film series, #BlackPanthersMatter: The Black Panther Party at 50. In this two-part interview, Berry first shares her personal connection to the Black Panthers and her role in organizing the Black Panther Party Series.
Prior to her studies at Indiana University, Berry earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Mills College. As a college student in Oakland, California, Berry experienced the city in a way that spoke to its rich historical roots.
“When I lived in Oakland, I had an afro that I would wear every day. I always had a combed-out afro walking down the streets of Oakland, people would always yell Angela Davis. Or old men would talk to me about what the 60’s were like.
Last time I was in Oakland I was walking to Lois the Pie Queen, and I walked by this old man and he just shouted out ‘I ain’t seen a natural like that in hella years!’ Oakland is an empowering Black place to live,” Berry shares, when describing her time in Oakland.
Berry recalls one of her first encounters with the Black Panther Party dating back to her freshman year of high school, in which she gave a presentation on A Huey P. Newton Story (2001), a solo theatrical performance based on Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton’s political vision, which was created, written, and performed by Robert Guenveur Smith and adapted into a film directed by Spike Lee.
“I think the one man show is in and of itself incredibly powerful if done correctly. There’s a real intimacy to it [A Huey P. Newton Story], even on film. His ability to get into both the charisma and unsettling obsession of the mindset was really powerful. I think it took me a long time to separate Huey P. Newton, the living human being, from Huey P. Newton as portrayed in this play. “
Following this experience, Dorothy conducted further research on the Black Panther Party and found herself equally enthralled by their organizational skills as it related to their ability to mobilize supporters and the deftness with which the Panther’s ideas were presented.
Though Berry found this one-man play did a good job in not glamorizing Huey P. Newton, she is aware of how often the Black Panther Party’s cult of personality eclipses the true complexities of the Black Panther Party.“Romanticization is a real danger especially with the masculine identities within the Black Panther Party, because they were so powerful…socially…culturally but there was also the misogyny. Eldridge Cleaver…the monstrosity of raping and the beating of Kathleen, etc. You know it’s not something that I would romanticize and I feel like that’s one of the things about the Black Panthers that can be disadvantageous…it’s almost impossible not to romanticize something that just looks cool. Like even if you don’t know who they are or you don’t care about it and you’re like ‘Black Panthers, they like Black Power and they look great.’”
This ties into what Berry dubs as the “The misfortunate coolness of Black aesthetics,” in which the visuals are easy to consume, while the ideas are hard to process.
“The images become iconographic regardless of the visage of the actual person….like the Black Panthers have that aspirational coolness that Black people have always had; subcultural Black people in the United States always have coolness. They’re always defining the style years in advance and there is that long term history of everyone wanting the commodifiable aspects of cool Blackness but not the struggle aspects. That’s particularly dangerous with something that is a specific political movement because you can go buy a leather jacket and a beret and you can set yourself up to be whatever you want. So my question is does the iconography live beyond the actual message? But also I think that they specifically utilized and militarized their imagery, it wasn’t just that they happened to be some cool guys that loved jackets.”
When considering other films that might continue to showcase the Black Panthers’ cultural and political reach, Berry also selected The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 as she found it to be a film that provided various opportunities for its screening audience to engage with the story of the Black Panther Party in a profound way:
“I think that there is this audience at an academic university that already has a knowledge of the Black Panther Party and the things that they may think are cool relating to the Black Panthers, but those things aren’t necessarily accessible to a wider audience, even a wider audience that’s equally smart and equally willing to be engaged but just hasn’t been engaged as of yet. So I think a film like that which has interviews with people that are more potentially recognizable like ?uestlove or Erykah Badu makes it more accessible to a broader audience than someone that would be like ‘Oh yeah, I love the Last Poets…I’m already down for that part of the cause.’”
In addition to the milestone anniversary of the Black Panther Party, the programming of this series was fitting for many other reasons:
“I thought for a 50th anniversary and since they’ve been in the spotlight a lot lately, visually, with Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, and even with just different news articles doing a chronology with Black Lives Matter I think that an actual straightforward primer is really beneficial.
And also thinking about this being screened at an academic institution, it makes it easier to maybe assign attending the screening to students.”
Berry’s hope is that this can be used as an educational opportunity that can engage as wide of an audience as possible at Indiana University.
“It’s saddening just what people aren’t taught even at ages where I would assume that they would know things. I taught a Survey of Hip Hop course and those kids really didn’t have a background to be prepared to talk about American history. I feel like it’s important to provide screening opportunities and cultural opportunities generally that are accessible beyond people that already like films. Like people who do want to go and see it because they’re like ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to see this on the big screen.’ Or have always wanted to see this in 16 mm…which is great, because that’s who I am, but I think as a programmer in a public academic institution, you have a responsibility to everybody.”
[Part two of “Interview with Dorothy Berry” coming soon]