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Wading through red carpet glitterati this weekend, we found ourselves searching for that most elusive element of style: substance. Then we came across a captivating detail about The Artist’s conspicuously un-nominated James Cromwell.
Before Babe, or L.A. Confidential, or Six Feet Under, the six-foot-seven actor was a member of the “Committee to Defend the Black Panthers,” hosted recently incarcerated Panthers in his home and even went to Algeria to pay his respects to Eldridge Cleaver.
Well, the story goes like this: In the late ’60s Cromwell, a self-described “bourgeois white boy,” joined the radical Black Panther Party by becoming a member of “The Committee to Defend the Panthers.” Their focus was to free 13 Panther members who had been jailed in New York on conspiracy charges.
“The goal of the government was to get all the leaders of the Black Panther Party in jail so that they could be killed systematically through prison violence, and that way they could stop what was a very powerful and evolving movement,” Cromwell maintains. The Panther 13 were acquitted in 1971 after two years in jail; a jury found them innocent of all 156 charges against them.
Cromwell believes strongly that if given a chance the group, which inspired passion from friends and foes alike, would have changed the world for the better.
“I don’t think we would have the kind of prison population now and what happens in this country with the gangs if the Panthers had been allowed to continue what they decided to do, which was basically empower black communities to take back their self control … and reestablish the dignity of being a black person in this country,” said Cromwell.
That’s left-wing enough to make Sean Penn’s heart stop bleeding. Whatever one’s politics, it takes deep conviction and deeper substance to skirt the edge — especially for an actor as quiet and restrained as Cromwell. Bravo.