• Marlene Cummins visits New York City for the International Black Panther Conference. (SBS)Source: SBS
The story of Marlene Cummins, who paid a tragic price for her allegiance to Australia’s little-known Black Panther movement, makes for captivating viewing. Here’s why:
Ed Gibbs

14 Dec 2015 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2015 - 9:16 AM

It provides a unique perspective on a famous movement

Women played a key role in the Black Panther movements of the 1970s, but the harsh realities of belonging to a male-dominated organization have gone largely unheard. Until now. Marlene Cummins’s decision to speak out against the violent injustices of the Brisbane-based organization has been 40 years in the making – and it’s come at a time when women’s rights are again making headlines.


It traces the American roots of the movement and its Australian adaption

The Black Panther Party began life in America in 1966, and sought to highlight and fight the social inequality and injustices facing people of colour. Its doctrine spread to other English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia, where Aboriginal rights campaigners saw it as a means for promoting causes including land rights.


It proves it’s never too late to confront the past

Marlene Cummins’s recent trip to New York, for a gathering of former Black Panthers, takes her back to a time of hope and opportunity. Still struggling with the violent assault she suffered 40 years ago, Cummins’s is a cautionary tale in which she was faced with an impossible decision: risk everything by naming her abusers, or stay quiet for the sake of the cause. She chose the latter.


… And achieve a lifelong dream

Today, Cummins is an accomplished blues singer, who still performs and records. Several of her songs feature in the film. The experience of making the documentary inspired her to cut her debut LP.


It shows how a small number of people can make big change

 At its peak, America’s Black Panther Party had a membership that ran into the thousands, officially ceasing operations in 1982, until its recent revival in parts of the US. The Queensland chapter – like its London cousin, an unofficial offshoot – numbered just 10 in total. Despite its modest size, it played a key role in landmark events in Australia, including the Tent Embassy protests of the early to mid 1970s, with ASIO keeping watch.


Get your own copy of Black Panther Woman here or watch it when it returns to SBS.