Imprisoned in Atlanta on charges of murder and armed robbery the year she was born, the father of Ksisay Sadiki-Torres played only a minor role in her early childhood. She remembers visiting him in prison and attending court cases with her mother during his five-year sentence, but not really understanding the nature of these strange visits: she remembers being taught not to tell other children about her parents’ politicized past.
Growing up, Sadiki-Torres remembers an intimate network of mothers and childhood friends, all of whose fathers were in prison for similar reasons. She remembers rejecting her parents’ lifestyle as a teenager, and later being told by her mother about the close monitoring of her family by government intelligence agencies.
Ksisay Sadiki-Torres, a 40-year-old part-time filmmaker, is the daughter of two former New York Black Panthers, one of whom is incarcerated in a Georgia prison. And even though Sadiki-Torres doesn’t consciously subscribe to Panther ideals, she still feels that her parents’ beliefs profoundly shaped her development.
That’s why, in part, Sadiki-Torres began filming a documentary focusing on the lives of Black Panther children. She aims to capture how that revolutionary political legacy has influenced her generation, one born in the wake of the active but quickly extinct Panther movement.
The stories of those who grew up with Panther parents have just never been told before, at least not at this level of detail, she says.
“This is an intimate story, which connects with Panther families, rather than individuals,” explains Sadiki-Torres. “These families have made sacrifices, which have strongly impacted their children. Part of the story is that these children are now adults.”
She adds: “One question here is: What’s our position here as Panther children? Must we inherit and continue this legacy?”
Founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the historical Black Panther Party was an armed, revolutionary political organization struggling for “equality, justice, and freedom,” according to the website of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a California community-based organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the movement. The party remained active until the early 1980s, at which point it slowly declined out of existence.
Although she plans to capture a good deal of footage in October, partly at an anniversary celebration of former Panthers in Philadelphia, Sadiki-Torres has already produced a 12-minute trailer for the documentary, tentatively titled “Panther Cubs.”
Sadiki-Torres hopes to use the trailer as a commercial pitch, so she can raise money in December to finish the rest of the documentary. She has already assembled a film crew, and so far has interviewed eight Panther children, several of whom are close friends.
About nine minutes of the trailer is devoted to an open dialogue with other Panther children in the sunny backyard of her Bronx home, while the rest documents a visit to her father, Kamau Sadiki, who is serving life imprisonment in Georgia’s Augusta State Medical Prison, on charges of murder and armed robbery.
Sadiki was sentenced in November 2003, after fresh but disputed evidence related to his original trial emerged, even though his case had previously been closed as unsolved. Re-arrested and sentenced more than 30 years after the original crime, Sadiki has purportedly faced what his daughter Sadiki-Torres calls a “totally unfair” and “politically motivated” trial.
Screened at Harlem’s Maysles Institute on Oct. 8, Sadiki-Torres’ documentary trailer provoked an emotional and appreciative reaction from the audience, which included several uptown residents as well as Panthers formerly based in the Harlem and Corona party branches.
A lively panel discussion and question-and-answer session followed the screening. Panelists included Sadiki-Torres; her mother and former Panther, Pamela Hanna; and her 17-year-old daughter, Yuri Sadiki-Torres, among others.
The screening and panel discussion at the cozy independent cinema, which mostly plays documentaries, happened as part of the popular Black Panther Party Film Festival, now in its third year. A special art exhibit paying homage to the party and its turbulent story, created by Sophia Dawson, filled the small space, while Panthers, who typically swear lifelong commitment to the party’s causes, hawked and promoted party-related merchandise, literature and newspapers.
The ‘New’ Black Panthers
Participants at the panel discussion also included one audience member who described himself as a member of the New Black Panther Party. Shaheed Shakura, 48-year-old minister of law and justice at the New Black Panther Party, said he hoped to “carry on with the Black Panther legacy, but with a few twists to educate and enlighten the still sleeping black people.”
Shakura claims to work against police brutality, unaffordable housing and unfair imprisonment of political prisoners. Once a month on Friday, from noon until 6 p.m., he hands out free food and clothes at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, in a program called the Peoples Survival Program.
He said: “We want to let the pigs know: nothing’s changed since the time of the original party. If you hurt one of us in the black community, you hurt all of us, and will be dealt with appropriately.”
The New Black Panther Party has, however, been denounced by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, a foundation dedicated to a founder of the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The foundation stated in an open letter that the new organization promoted “concepts absolutely counter to the revolutionary principles” of the original party.
The new Black Panther movement has also been criticized by historic Black Panther founder Bobby Seale in a July 2010 CNN interview, and termed “xenophobic.” He said the new movement made remarks that were “absurd, racial, categorical.” Seale emphasized that there is no connection between the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the New Black Panther Party.
Uptowners present at the screening had much to say about both Sadiki-Torres’ documentary and the relationship between Black Panthers and Harlem in general.
“Taking the perspective of families is an interesting idea for a documentary,” said Justin Rucker, a 22-year-old graduate student and Harlem resident. “We always think of these great revolutionaries, but never think of their families.
“I definitely think people in our neighborhood are interested in this idea and would go see the documentary. And even if people aren’t interested, they should be.”
Nellie Bailey, director of Harlem’s Coalition to Preserve Community, agreed, saying: “Young black people should understand and appreciate this history of truly revolutionary struggle. Every year this film festival grows in popularity: that’s a testament to how much these families are loved by the community.”
Commenting specifically on Sadiki-Torres’ documentary, she noted: “We need to understand the impact the struggle had on these children. Today we saw three generations: there’s an extremely compelling story here.”
Former Panther member Pamela Hanna, who used to sell party newspapers in Harlem, felt proud about her daughter’s film, but lamented the lack of awareness among local youth about Panther history.
“Youth around here are more concerned with hip-hop than history,” Hanna said. “I think Ksisay’s film could appeal to a younger crowd, who are sometimes just an almost unconscious crowd.
“Sometimes they don’t even know the Panthers existed, or are not into the issues Panthers deal with.”
Jessica Green, cinema director at the Maysles Institute, estimated that about 400 people attended the film festival, which stretched over four days and two weekends.
“The fact that the festival is held in Harlem is part of its success,” said Green, noting that there was a core Harlem audience. “There’s something to be said about watching films about a community actually shot in a certain place, and to walk outside, and find yourself in the space that was just documented.”
Green also confirmed that the festival had not encountered any opposition or criticism, despite the fact that some view the Black Panthers as controversial, because of their violent activities.
“Remember that this is a neighborhood where on Malcolm X’s birthday, the main thoroughfare gets shut down,” said Green. “Harlem is like nowhere else in the world: It would be hard to do a Panther film festival on Fifth Avenue, but maybe that’s where it should be done!”
She observed: “So much Panther history actually took place in Harlem. The Panther legacy runs really deep.”