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Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.

FRAMING THE BLACK PANTHERS: THE SPECTACULAR RISE OF A BLACK POWER ICON, by Jane Rhodes (New York, London, The New Press, 2007, 404 pp., $35.00, cloth, ISBN-10: 1565849612).

Reviewed by Madhavi Murty

In Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon, Jane Rhodes traces the intricate history of the black power movement in the United States with a particular focus on the Black Panthers and their complicated relationship with the media. Rhodes states that Framing the Black Panthers was a "... quest to analyze the Black Panthers' enduring influence on American mass culture." As such, the book is a critical examination of what Rhodes succinctly calls the "nostalgia industry." It simultaneously critiques the official memorializing of America in the 1960s, which has served to conflate radicalism with whiteness, seen the black freedom struggles in the South as an "inspiration" and the black power movements of the North as a "problem" (313), as well as the uncomplicated celebration and recuperation of black power groups like the Panthers by African American cultural producers seeking to "... claim a place in the national memory ..." (319). Rhodes thus presents her reader with a richly textured history in Framing the Black Panthers, narrating a tale about race, representation and America in the 1960s with all its contradictions and tensions intact.

One of the tensions that Rhodes teases out in this work is the struggle over representation: the tension between media institutions producing the spectacle that was to become iconic as the Black Panther Party (the media as dominant structure) and the Black Panthers as producers of their own imagery and iconicity (the Black Panthers as agents). Rhodes presents this struggle over representation as a complicated negotiation, a "... dialogic relationship that developed between the Panthers and the media organizations that brought them into the public eye" (6). Her narrative carefully points to the power of the culture industry in constructing history, memory, and iconicity. She does this without transforming these institutions into all-powerful purveyors and simultaneously points to the Panthers' creativity as political actors without simplistically celebrating them as subversive agents. In this context, Rhodes states that the Black Panther Party has been consistently dismissed by media observers and commentators, scholars, and government officials as a "media-made" spectacle. She argues that in doing so, this commentary assigns the "power of representation to media institutions rather than their subjects" (309) and ignores the "... interdependence between media producers and media subjects," thus erasing "individual and group agency" (310). By contrast, Rhodes carefully holds and handles the tension between the terms "media spectacle" and "interaction" as a form of "dialogue" within the book. Thus, she shows her reader how the media spectacularized the Panthers and transformed the group into commodities even as her narrative explicates the Panthers' own strategic use of the media through the construction of spectacles. Consequently, she weaves a rich history of both the American media--its representation and construction of race and racialization, its routines, the divergences and the similarities between the local and the national press, as well as the local African American press and the national media institutions--and the American black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Her history includes the individuals who became icons of the historical moment, as well as the movement itself, the strategies, the successes and the failures, the legacy, the memory, and the continual struggle.

METHODOLOGICALLY, Rhodes' traces the "frames' that came to and continue to represent the Black Panthers. Consistently arguing that the members of the Black Panther Party were "not mere victims of the media, but were participants in every aspect of their representations," Rhodes states that she is using the term "framing" as a "double entendre" in order to understand this dialogic process. As a double entendre, "framing" suggests that "subjects are placed within a formal frame that focuses attention on selected aspects of a visual or verbal text ... [but also that] subjects are set up to appear to be something they are not" (5, 6). This conceptualization of framing allows Rhodes to trace the complex negotiations between a movement, its agents, and their strategies of mobilization and the representations constructed by institutions that serve to iconize the movement through creating celebrities (Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, for instance) and to investigate subjects as racialized bodies. Through "framing," Rhodes points to the mundane processes and routines within the media that serve to construct race as both a social category and as a commodity.

Framing the Black Panthers is provocative in the sense that it points to several themes and questions that call for greater theorization. Rhodes hints at the formation of publics and counter publics in her analysis of the diverse discourses that the Panthers both embodied and came to represent; the Panthers become icons because--as Rhodes helps us see--they came to represent the anger but also the hope of poor, undereducated, black, urban America while simultaneously symbolizing the danger of subversion and the fear of anarchy for the white middle class and the state. How do we define publics and counter publics? Are they analytical categories that help us understand the complicated histories of social movements or are they historical entities? If it is the latter, how do we theorize these in the context of the black power movement; what is the relationship between race and racialization and the formation of such publics? Rhodes' work provokes these questions and calls for greater theorization in this context. The book also calls for further deliberation on the politics of representation itself--how do the practices of representation-mediated through the news press and entertainment media or through a political group's own message making process--construct and transform what we understand as politics? Framing the Black Panthers also complicates any simple understanding of "mainstream" and "alternative" press. Rhodes shows us empirically in this fascinating work that simple assumptions about the content of the news media based on preformed categories are in fact highly problematic.
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Author:Murty, Madhavi
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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