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Shepard and Panther BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN SILENT TONGUE Directed by Sam Shepard PASSIN’ IT ON Directed by John Valadez TRUE WEST, title of one of more than 40 plays by Sam Shepard, is also his abiding theme. In a bare expanse be tween Mississippi and Pacific, fathers, sons and the women they covet and loathe do passionate battle. Shepard is the bard of the nuclear family, of explosive fissions that detonate the bonds of kinship. Silent Tongue, which Shepard directs and wrote, is set on New Mexico’s Llano Estacado in 1873. A lone equestrian accompanies three riderless horses across the vacant plains. Prescott Roe halts at an encampment of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show, where he attempts to strike a deal with its proprietor, an effusive Irish sot named Eamon McCree. Roe offers to trade his horses for McCree’s half-Kiowa daughago, Roe swapped for Velada’s older sister Awbonnie. Intended as conjugal medicine for Roe’s melancholy son Talbot, Awbonnie died in childbirth. Roe now seeks to substitute Velada for Awbonnie, to save his son’s life. Crosscuts establish that Talbot is desperate over the loss of his bartered bride. But she has also returned as a ghost, to haunt the European spouse she despises. Like the acting troupe in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and carnivals that fill Fellini’s films, the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show, sprightly vendor of bogus potions, is. a commentary on Shepard’s own cinematic art. With funky numbers by the Red Clay Ramblers, it is also the liveliest part of the movie. As Prescott Roe, Richard Harris is uncharacteristically restrained, but Alan Bates’ tipsy Celt, Eamon, eats up enough of the scenery to induce sympathetic dyspepsia. As weeping widower Talbot, River Phoenix, who died months after completing this role, has already disappeared, overshadowed by the ranting shade of the Silent Tongue, whose title is the name of the Kiowa woman Eamon raped and then married, counterpoints two sets of sires. “A father is not my calling in life,” admits Mc Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Cree, and none would disagree, certainly who refuses to accept the peddling of his half-sisters. “It shames me to be the son of a pig,” says Reeves. Prescott, by contrast, is so devoted to his son that he gladly serves as the young man’s pander. “I’m a European, not a savage,” exclaims Eamon, but the distinction is not conspicuous. The final image in Silent Tongue is of an old white peddler pulling his wares across the Kiowa plains. In Silent Tongue, Shepard trots out the grotesque matter that gallops so well through Buried Child, Fool For Love and A Lie of the Mind. “Madness is , a sorry thing,” comments Reeves in a Lear-like aside that makes you wonder whether this tale of Western desperation should have been staged, not shot. T III he police taught me what America was about,” declares Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who, as Richard Moore, grew up on the mean streets of the South Bronx. He was convicted of assault \(“I’d like to think of the incident as one in which I exercised the right in 1967 into a more clamorous world than the one he had left five years earlier. He became a leader of the New York branch of the Black Panthers, the band of African-American militants founded in Oakland the year before. One of 21 New York Panthers singled out by authorities, he was arrested and, after two mistrials, found guilty of shooting two police officers. After 19 years behind bars, Dhoruba Bin Wahad was set free on appeal to the New York State Supreme Court. He has resumed his activism, .even while fighting litigation to reverse his release. Passin’ It Onscheduled by most PBS affiliates for July 19 broadcast on the weekly P.O.V. seriesexamines Bin Wahad’s current endeavors against the background of his personal history and of American race relations during the past three decades. “If we don’t pay close attention to what the Dhoruba Bin Wahads have to say,” says director John Valadez in an epilogue to his film debut, “the alternative is to watch L.A. burn.” Bin Wahad is a fiery figure, and we see him igniting crowds at rallies, raging against continuing incarceration of political prisoners and exhorting audiences to embrace African pride. His retrospective on the Black Panthers is benign, and it is the perspective that Valadez generally tries to pass on. Through new interviews and archival footage, Passin’ It On emphasizes the positive contributions that Panthers made to more than 30 blighted communities, where disciplined young men organized to provide child care, food banks, clinics and schools. “It was part political training, part community service, part military training, part improvisation,” recalls Jamal Joseph about his experience as a Panther. The military training was necessary, insists Bin Wahad, because of the rampant urban violence out of which the Panthers arose. The FBI targeted them for destruction and did not hesitate to employ deadly forcemost infamously in Chicago against Fred Hampton, surprised, unarmed, in bedto eliminate leaders. The film outlines the clandestine FBI CoIntelPro campaign that sought to destabilize, demoralize and eradicate the Panthers by planting informers, provocateurs and lunatics within their ranks and by framing responsible leaders for crimes they did not commit. Bin Wahad, who was placed on the FBI’s “Agitator Index,” insists that he was wrongly convicted of the shootings for which he was only recently released. He was seized while attacking a black social club, an operation he claims he undertook in order to combat drug dealing. A member of Bin Wahad’s first, hung jury recalls the manipulation of evidence and testimony to incriminate the defendant. “I’m dumbfounded 20 years later,” he says. So is Elizabeth Fink, the white attorney who fought so long in court to free Bin Wahad: “They were interested in taking the most militant, they thought, the most articulate, the most brilliant of them, and framing him for it.” Robert Daley, Deputy New York City Police Commissioner when Bin Wahad was arrested, deplores the brutality and corruption of his force. But he . also tells the viewer: “Nobody ever deserved a long jail term more than Moore.” Valadez’s camera does not linger to learn exactly why Daley thinks so, nor does it acknowledge any of the recent memoirs, by Elaine Brown, David Hilliard, and others, that portray the vanity, thuggery and savagery of many Panthers. An honest portrait of the party demands complicating shades of ebony, but Valadez has chosen to pass on it. 22 JULY 1, 1994 ,101.1pin1 -. ,OP