speaking without being heard: a response to Louis Theroux’s ‘Weird Weekend’ with Black Nationalists

by erinohsays

[written as a response paper for my documentary media course at Ryerson]

BBC journalist Louis Theroux opens the “Black Nationalism” episode of his documentary television series Weird Weekends by asking the leader of Harlem’s Black Panthers, “What if there was a peaceful solution? What if there was a way to protest and march and stop police brutality peacefully?” To which the Black Panther leader responds, “We’re not going to stand here and speak of some shazam, some hocus pocus, some abra cadabra magic. There is no peaceful way. The white man, I say to you over and over again, is absolutely disagreeable to get along with in peace.” The hour-long documentary then follows Theroux over the course of a few days as he navigates his whiteness while exploring the views of moderate-to-extreme black power groups in Harlem. His goal, he says, is to see if they will “accept a white man in their lives” only days after the fatal shooting of an innocent black Harlem man by four white police officers.

Theroux’s Weird Weekends television series aired on the BBC from January 1998 to October 2000. The episodes follow Theroux as he spends a few days with “extremist” groups, including anti-gay Christian hate groups, people who believe in UFOs, black supremacists, and porn stars. Throughout the series, Theroux seems unaware of the camera as it follows him around and records his seemingly spontaneous interactions and unscripted conversations with members of the various subcultures. According to Theroux’s website, Weird Weekends follows a “Gonzo style journalism” in which the story is written without claims of objectivity, with the reporter as part of the story via a first person narrative, favouring style over accuracy. Theroux says of it, “The show is laughing at me, adrift in their world, as much as at them.”

Throughout the “Black Nationalism” episode Theroux interviews a number of influential black supremacists, including Reverend Al Sharpton, Black Panther leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad, and several members of the Nation of Islam. In each interaction, Theroux is comically defensive, hyper-focused on questions of violence, and obsessed with whether or not those being interviewed think of him as a “white devil”. While interviewing a close aide of Reverend Sharpton about whether or not he condones the use of violence in furthering the black nationalist cause, the aide says, “When we wake up in the morning, we have to come out combat ready.” The camera pans from the aide’s face to Theroux’s wide eyes as he shifts uncomfortably in his place and says nothing. A woman walking past yells, “White man is the devil!”

The next scene shows Theroux riding on a tour bus throughout Harlem with Reverend Sharpton as he explains why he advocates for black nationlism. Sharpton says, “New York is a city where blacks are in one area, and whites are in a totally different community. High integration in America is a myth. There are no banks in Harlem.” As Sharpton continues to provide Theroux with a thoughtful reflection on his black supremacist beliefs, explaining that whites can access better education, better neighbourhoods simply because of the color of their skin, Theroux appears distracted and continues his exaggerated discomfort and shiftiness. After a pause, Theroux asks, “So what should I do if the white devil thing keeps coming up?” His preoccupation with this frivolous comment doesn’t allow for meaningful engagement with Sharpton, and instead is meant to provide comical relief for the viewer.

Following his interview with Sharpton, Theroux spends a few hours with several members of the Nation of Islam, who are understandably guarded and speak very little to him. Theroux narrates, “Our relationship never developed beyond the formalities…in fact it became even more awkward.” The camera shows the several members standing in silence with Theroux in a Harlem store as he sighs and attempts to strike up a conversation about a book he once read about African American history. The men are unresponsive and visibly irritated. Following his meeting with the members, Theroux concludes, “I’d spent time with the Nation of Islam’s most senior figures and I wasn’t any clearer about the doctrine,” so he speaks with Black Panther leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad, widely known for his militant anti-white message. Early on in their meeting, Theroux patronizingly says to the soft spoken Muhammad, “Your image led be to believe that you’d be more aggressive.” After a moment, Theroux asks, “Do you think I’m a devil?” Muhammad responds with a laugh and says, “That’s a devilish question. If there is a devil, he doesn’t have a chance with the white man on top of the ground.”

Theroux’s interview with Muhammad follows the same theme as his interview with Sharpton. Theroux’s questions focus on questions of advocating for violence, believing the white man is a devil, and inquiring about Muhammad’s sexual relationships. Rather than ask Muhammad about his beliefs as a black supremacist leader and how his beliefs are part of a larger historical movement that speaks to systemic racism, Theroux asks, “Are you in a relationship at the moment? Would you go out with a white woman?” Maintaining his calm demeanour, Muhammad responds, “That’s another devilish question. I’m interested in women of my culture. As a black nationalist, I’m interested in building the black nation.”

The film ends with Theroux revisiting his interview with Sharpton, who emphasizes that the violence perpetrated against blacks by the New York Police Department – not black nationalists – are the problem. Sharpton encourages Theroux to attend a peaceful rally and speak out against the fatal shooting of the black Harlem resident earlier that week. Although Theroux initially resists, arguing that it’s not his place as a white man to speak out against racism, Sharpton eventually convinces him to attend the rally. The last scene of the film is of Theroux being handcuffed and taken away in a police car for blocking traffic during the rally. The scene leaves the viewer with the feeling that it was useless for Theroux to get involved, that the tactics of the black supremacist movement are ineffective, and that the only solution for ending racial violence is for the black community to be less violent.

Connecting the “Black Nationalism” episode of Weird Weekends to broader theories in journalism and documentary film raises a number of interesting questions and problems. Stella Bruzzi discusses the narrative style of ‘journey films’ in popular television documentary that is based on encounters between filmmaker and subjects, and also between the spectator and film. Bruzzi discusses how the encounter, in particular the chance encounter, was a main element of cinema verite and that it continues to be a main factor of observational documentaries. A common theme in a majority of observational documentaries, including Weird Weekends, is that they are unplanned and use the journey as a way to probe the nature of objective, premeditated forms of documentary film. This form of observational documentaries comes out of earlier forms of direct cinema that were based on the paradox of unpredictable action not dictated by the filmmakers, who simultaneously desired to impose closure on the undetermined action. As an observational documentary, Weird Weekends challenges notions of certainty and predictability to a certain extent. By taking the form of an actual journey throughout Harlem, the filmmakers demonstrate that the foundation of the film is itself based on the notion of not knowing what the filmmakers are going to discover throughout the course of the film. However, by focusing on specific questions of violence, the “white devil”, and the personal relationships of black supremacist leaders, the film limits the scope of its exploration into the black supremacist movement and reinforces existing stigmas about Black Nationalism as an emotional and violent belief.

Hito Steyerl’s article Can Witnesses Speak? On the Philosophy of the Interview sheds further light onto how documentary journalism can reinforce stigmas against marginalized social groups by exploring the conditions within which documentary witnesses have the ability to speak for themselves. For example, Steyerl argues that one of the problems in Godard’s film “La politique et le Bonheur” is that, “letting the workers speak for themselves, letting them participate in the production of the film, does not necessarily mean letting them speak up”. The key word here is “letting”, implying an imbalanced power relationship in which the filmmakers are in a position of authority to decide whether or not those being filmed are allowed to participate in the filmmaking process. Members of the black nationalist movement are portrayed in a similar way to how workers in “La politique et le Bonheur” are portrayed. In both films, the subjects being interviewed are objects of a voyeuristic gaze in which the viewer has a predetermined idea of what their role should be; the viewer is interested in “authenticity” but sees the interviewees as unintelligent objects incapable of bringing about their own change.

Epistemic violence prevents certain groups of the population from social articulation, which Steyerl describes as speaking without being heard. She cites an example from the film “Tout va bien” in which it is not possible to articulate the will of the women in the film because they exist in a society characterized by colonialism and patriarchy. The attempt to capture their voices as “authentic” actually serves to document the impossibility of capturing their voices at all. Steyerl further argues that it is impossible to capture the oppression of women in a patriarchal society because the filmmaking process is already part of the problem. Similarly, throughout Theroux’s documentary on Black Nationalism the oppression of black nationalist groups cannot be captured because their voice is already marginalized and stigmatized within the broader white supremacist society. Furthermore, although the documentary explores black nationalism to a limited extent, it does so in a way that further marginalizes and stigmatizes the views of those being interviewed.