How long do the ghosts of revolution linger, haunting the battlegrounds of a failed insurrection? That’s a question with which Douglas Miranda has long struggled — now a graying specter himself of a bright and dangerous time. Miranda was 21 when he traveled from his home in Boston to New Haven to help organize a rally for the jailed Black Panther leader Bobby Seale; it was April 1970, and Miranda, “efficient, intelligent, a smart tactician and a brilliant speaker,” as described in Bouchra Khalili’s new video piece at the Museum of Fine Arts, was about to encounter an unexpected ally: the French writer and activist Jean Genet, who had slipped into the country for that very occasion.
That moment and its long, slow fade into the shadows of half-remembered history is at the core of “22 Hours,” the 45-minute work Khalili started making while an artist in residence at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in 2017. Khalili, who is Moroccan, came to Boston with the project in mind. She knew Genet had spoken here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, part of a nationwide tour; in his MIT address, he had called the Panthers the most “brilliant, luminous, and poignant part of American society.” Linking up with activist networks here led her slowly to Miranda, who, after many years in Texas, had recently returned. She had what she needed: a witness, after so long — someone who was there, and could tell what he had seen.
You might be tempted to imagine “22 Hours” as a documentary. It isn’t, though elements of that form root her work in the unshakable bedrock of fact. It presents history as though viewed through an electronic keyhole: Khalili’s narrators, Quiana Pontes and Vanessa Silva, two young black local activists, recount events in dispassionate tones; Miranda, the gravel voiced sage, adds his firsthand accounts. Images, of Genet, of Miranda, of Seale, and more, appear on iPhones lying flat in front of the camera.
It feels almost like a seance — one generation invoking another, long past, a plea for guidance in a time just as turbulent. Miranda, now paunchy and bearded with a knot of silvery dreadlocks, arrives less to offer advice than perspective: “The Party already exists in history. It can’t be replicated,” he intones, flatly, when they ask if the Panthers could have an impact today. “We must learn from its history and further develop its ideas and aims . . . to challenge the status quo.”
It’s a clinical thing to read, but in the raspy rumble of Miranda’s voice, it feels less dry than lucid — clear-eyed wisdom from a vessel of history, the witness who was there. (When asked if the Panthers failed, he says, unruffled: “It’s a fair assessment. We were defeated.”)
The sober tones of the present project into the future and chafe with the stridency of the past: Growing more famous for his public attacks on authority after the 1968 riots and wildcat strikes throughout France, Genet had aligned himself with social revolution at home and elsewhere. In March 1970, the Panthers came to Genet in Paris to ask for his help. He agreed, and they left the next day.
He spoke on behalf of the Panthers with a fiery urgency. In a TV interview with CBS San Francisco on March 21, 1970, Genet looks like a spring wound tight — his body clenched, his hands locked. He calls the Black Panthers “the only really revolutionary movement in America” at a time when dilettante youth protests — sit-ins, love-ins, smoke-ins — were common. When asked why he has come, he answers two ways: to make as widely-known as possible the danger that Seale and the Party are facing, and second “to be the witness in Europe to the injustice and racism that exists in this country.” (Khalili has included the clip in her work, but you can watch it on YouTube.)
Genet, censored in the United States, had already been denied a visa to enter the country once. This time he simply snuck in. He arrived with the party in crisis and the temperature rising: Seale was awaiting a murder trial; Huey Newton, Seale’s Black Panther cofounder, was in jail for manslaughter. The Party was closely monitored by the FBI as a domestic terror organization; by fall of that year, the activist, intellectual, and Panther associate Angela Davis would be arrested and jailed for her alleged involvement in a murder plot. Over months spent in the United States, Genet would speak for them all, using his celebrity to draw crowds and media coverage.
In public appearances, on radio and on TV, Genet burned with a genuine rage. “What people call American civilization will disappear,” he growled, in French, to a crowd of thousands on the Yale campus on May 1, 1970, a rally in support of Seale. “It is already dead because it is founded on contempt . . . the contempt of the rich for the poor, the contempt of whites for blacks.” With the Panthers, he had found kinship. “He knew he was like us,” Miranda says. “He knew that outlaws . . . have to make their own rules.”
Why exhume this faded chapter, bring back to light its impassioned failings? Khalili, surely, can see in our own radically-polarized moment a ripeness for revolt. Plus ça change, Genet might think, were he able to see the widening chasm between have and have-not, and race relations locked into a familiar, destructive pattern (Genet died in 1986). With her narrators, Khalili offers hope, and Miranda advice.
“In revolution, we fail until we win,” he says, his deadpan brightening ever so slightly. As Genet might say: Vive la révolution.
BOUCHRA KHALILI: 22 HOURS
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Aug. 25. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org