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Thursday, August 8, 2013

A small talk on big subjects with writer-director Katherine Nero

Posted By on 08.08.13 at 12:55 PM

For the Cause
  • For the Cause
For the Cause, Katherine Nero's debut feature as writer-director, screens tonight at 8:30 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival. Shot mainly on the south side, it centers on a successful lawyer who's the daughter of former Black Panthers. Her father fled to Canada three decades earlier after shooting a police officer; when he's brought back to Chicago to be tried for his crime, she agrees to defend him in court. Her decision leads her to belatedly engage with her family history (which her mother, who abandoned politics for academia, had never discussed with her) as well as her own commitment to social progress. If nothing else, the movie is a great conversation starter, dramatizing complicated matters about race and U.S. history without drawing easy conclusions about either. Nero will take part in a discussion following tonight's show—I telephoned her yesterday to ask about her motivation behind making the film.

Ben Sachs: Where did the script of For the Cause originate, with the characters or with the social history it explores? There are moments of the movie that strike a balance between the personal and the political. I was curious as to which side of the equation you started from.

Katherine Nero: The social history. It was a matter of asking how does this one event [the dissolution of the Black Panther Party] affect people? So, I started with the event, then brought the people in, put them in the situation. And so much of that situation is part of Chicago, which is why I wanted it to be set here. Being in Chicago and then having a chance to live somewhere else—I've been in New York since 1996—let me appreciate things about the city I just did not appreciate until I moved away.

I never realized how political Chicago really is. It's political in pretty much every aspect of your life: where you go to school, the kind of services you get in your neighborhood . . . I think [For the Cause] started there, in knowing our history.

I imagine you did your share of research before writing the film. Were you surprised by anything you learned about the history of the Black Panther Party?

One thing I discovered with the Black Panthers was how much the party differed geographically. The Illinois chapter was, I think, one of the more exceptional in terms of their community involvement.

What interested you in particular?

Well, they were doing the [free] breakfast program, they also had a school, but they were also working with the gangs—trying to get the gangs to be more community-oriented. I think that was part of their downfall, unfortunately, because they were being seen as dangerous. And then the whole COINTELPRO came in.

I think about this in terms of what's going on today. What would have happened if there had been a coming together of [inner-city] communities and gangs? If they started working together instead of being at odds? I thought that was one of the most powerful aspects of the Illinois Black Panthers—that they were, in a sense, politicizing the gangs. They did a lot that was very positive: providing better services for the community, buying property . . .

And yet the movie is also a feminist critique of the Panthers—not just of sexist practices within the party, but this general air of machismo.

Yes, there was a lot of that. [laughs]

I was wondering how you reconcile your admiration for the Panthers with these qualities that you—or at least the movie—identify as awful.

Well, the thing to remember is that, once again, it varied from chapter to chapter. Fred Hampton, for one, did not agree with a lot of the party's sexism. Unfortunately, that aspect was very much alive in the originating Oakland chapter. There were instances where the women [in the party] had to serve the men food, even though they were getting arrested with them too.

I mean, sexism is part of our history as a whole. Throughout the civil rights [movement], there were aspects of sexism. . . . It's a double-edged sword. As a woman, you want to support the cause; at the same time, you're being discriminated against by the people you're supposed to be fighting with. There were women [in the party] who were actually called "counterrevolutionary bitches" for complaining about sexist treatment. Those complaints weren't even related to political progress; they were about individuals wanting to be treated with respect.

So, where do you stand on the history of the party?

The way I reconcile it is that I accept it all. The issue I have is when people romanticize it. That's what I fight against. . . . We have a tendency to romanticize history, but I think we need to embrace the bad along with the good. If you do that, you can figure out how to make things better. But if you act like a past era was rosy. . . . It's a problem we experience as a country, not being truthful to our history. It's an act of denial.

Then there's the opposite problem, which grew out of political correctness: if a chapter of history is problematic in regards to race relations, sexual attitudes, or whatever, then we'll regard the whole chapter as negative or simply eliminate it from conversation.

Yeah. I think that's dangerous—any kind of partial view. You know, I have this scene in [For the Cause] where those [college students] raise their fists [to a former Black Panther] and say "Power to the people" without knowing the whole story. They're romanticizing.

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