2014 documentary Black Panther Woman, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival, comes to SBS this Sunday, with Indigenous woman Marlene Cummins speaking bravely and openly about abuse within her community.
In the early 1970s, Cummins joined the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party, a group of just 10 members, inspired by the American Black Panthers.
Fighting for equality and justice they were a defiant and revolutionary bunch, led by founder Dennis Walker. Cummins had left home to join the group, having to borrow $15 to buy a panthers uniform.
“We were angry, in your face. But we were so young. Us women were on the frontline too. Some of us, we paid a price,” she says.
Cummins performed in the group’s demonstrations, bringing kung-fu skills to a female superhero character.
“It was a kind of black theatre we acted out,” she recalls. “We became a family.”
She also fell for the charismatic Walker, and the pair became lovers.
While the group only lasted some 12 months, it had a profound affect on Cummins’ life. In this documentary, produced by Rachel Perkins of Blackfella Films (Redfern Now, Mabo, First Contact, Ready for This), she details the abuse that went on within the group. There was violence and rape. But it has taken 40 years for her to speak out. During that time she has battled addictions to alcohol, drugs and nicotine.
For Indigenous women, trying to achieve equality and justice for the community, it was no time to be showing an unified front.
“In order to get the message out we put up with a lot of shit,” she now concedes.
“I felt it was more important than my feelings at the time.”
Cummins, who lives in Redfern and is a presenter on Aboriginal radio, now believes it is time “for black women in this country come out with the truth of the abuses.”
“Someone has to come out and say something.
“You want to stop the bullshit. You want to stop the code of silence.”
With such heavy themes, it’s important for the story to find optimism. The filmmakers follow Cummins to New York where she reunites with other Black Panther women from the US, UK, New Zealand and India. Sharing the Australian experience, she is applauded for her strength and spirit despite her nerves about facing an audience of historians and academics.
“I’m still a Black Panther woman,” she tells them. “My history is oral.”
Others will praise her activism, saying she symbolises “many black women in the eyes of the many Aboriginal men in Australia.”
But Cummins still has one more cross to bear, telling the filmmakers she is addicted to gambling.
“Gambling seems to be the hardest one,” she admits.
While Black Panther Woman finds hope in the darkest of corners, its sole shortcoming is in not hearing from Dennis Walker, or from a voice that defends him. Presumably he did not wish to participate -only an end title credit notes he ‘disputes’ Cummins version of their relationship.
Cummins clearly remembers things differently.
“I saw a side in Dennis I didn’t particularly like and that was enough to drive me away,” she explains.
Carrying the weight of silence for so long, it’s hard not to notice a weight lifted from her shoulders.
Black Panther Woman airs 9:20pm Sunday on SBS.