Liberated Territory: A Rite of Passafe

Institute History

  • 1992 Directors Lab


LIBERATED TERRITORY: A RITE OF PASSAGE follows the lives of several young people through an eighteen month involvement with the Black Panther Party. The intensity of the experiences of these young men and women are similar to the experiences of any young soldier who goes to war. The pressure, excitement, and extreme dangers of this war-like existence transforms them. It causes them to go to prison; to become fugitives; or die. And, like any soldiers, they pay the ultimate price incurred in any war.

But this is not Vietnam or Cambodia, it is New York City, 1968. The rites of passage of these young people occurs during an explosive period in American history. The anti-war movement, the assassination of Dr. King, the Black Power Movement, the riots in Watts, Detroit, and Harlem are events that form a living montage and backdrop for LIBERATED TERRITORY.

The lives of these young people become extraordinary stories from ordinary beginnings. Malik Jenkins is a fifteen year old black honor student, Ian Phillips is a white classmate of Malik's and also one of Malik's best friends, Billy Mason is a street smart dropout who grew up in Harlem with Malik, and Terri Evans is a 16 year old student who becomes the mother of Billy's child.

In 1967, the Panthers burst into the California State Legislature with guns and stormed into the national limelight. By 1968, the Panthers had formed chapters in 39 states, including New York. The charisma and excitement of the Party caused its ranks to swell with militants, idealists, and the disenfranchised. Malik and his friends are thoroughly enraptured by the Panther mystique. Ian is not allowed to join the Panthers because he is white, but he becomes a fervent Panther ally, as well as a member of the Weather Underground. Malik, Billy, and Terri are given extensive military and ideological training. They soon become frontline warriors in a revolutionary battle for a new social order.

The Panthers are bad in every sense of the word. They wear black leather jackets and berets, quote Mao, carry guns and serve free breakfast to hungry school children. They call the police "pigs" and the government "fascist." They demand that the power structure end the capitalist exploitation of the poor and that it redistribute the wealth in a socialistic manner. They urge that working and unemployed people of all colors unite to defeat the system.

The Panthers are a fiery symbol of hope to many poor people of color. But to the government, FBI and police, they are a nightmare. Deciding that the Panthers must be quickly and thoroughly eliminated, a program of harassment, manipulation and disruption is put into effect by the FBI. The name of the operation is the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

The young Panthers age 10 years in 18 months as the pressure of being at war intensifies. Lives are lost, dreams shattered and the idealism of youth replaced by the pain of seeing the callousness of the world. Billy leads an armed crusade against drug dealers after watching his Mother O.D. on heroin. Terri walks away from the Panthers rather than participate in the murder of an informant. Malik is beaten and arrested on a frame-up. Eventually betrayed by a leader whom they adore, Billy is killed in a shootout and Malik is sent to prison for 25 years. The Black Panther Party is wiped out.

Malik returns to Harlem after serving 18 years in prison. The community that Malik had fought so hard to improve has become progressively worse. He is confronted by blocks of abandoned buildings resembling a war zone, scores of homeless, and an army of zombies paralyzed by a plague named crack. The corners that Malik protected as a fifteen-year-old are now ruled by man-children who have sold their allegiance to vicious drug bosses.

Malik falls into a post-traumatic stress abyss of suppressed rage and drug addiction. Terri, who has become a nurse, and her family rescue and nurture Malik. Using reservoirs of strength he had come to doubt he still possessed, he goes on to earn his masters degree and starts a job as the Director of a drug program.

As Malik stands in front of the former Panther office, now turned drug den, the forces that shaped his life pass before his eyes. An old man with dread-locks speaks to him and reminds him of a prophecy he once made to Malik when he was a child, "There is not much time." Malik's eyes fill with resolve and tears.

This was and is America; a nation divided in an internal war of hatred, words and violence. In this environment growing up is more than a commendable accomplishment, it is a heroic deed.

LIBERATED TERRITORY: A RITE OF PASSAGE is the story of two friends who make a heroic effort—against all odds.


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