Focusing on seven key years of recent American history, Stanley Nelson’s urgent, cogent documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution arrives on PBS stations early next year. I suggest not waiting.
To millions, revolution then seemed not just desirable but possible. In a little under two hours, Nelson can’t possibly tell all the stories of what pushed the Black Panthers into existence, and of the forces and personalities that corroded the highly visible movement from within and without.
Founded in Alabama in the wake of the civil rights movement, but solidified in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., the Black Panther Party became an armed presence on the streets of Oakland, responding to police brutality in the African-American community. This was a grassroots political movement, fed up and ready to fight, at a ripe political moment.
Longtime Panther Phyllis Jackson puts it succinctly: When an economic system seems rigged to keep the black working class “absolutely destitute,” it leaves an opening.
As the Black Panthers gathered steam and supporters, first with a protest near the California state capitol not far from an event hosted by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, its leaders began showing up everywhere from The Mike Douglas Show to Firing Line to countless local and national news reports.
Tension within the Black Panther factions, many in the film say, often broke down along mission statements: Were the Panthers better off in their more acceptable social service function (free hot breakfasts for school kids) or in riots in the streets designed to force change within the system?
Judiciously chosen by Nelson and editor Aljernon Tunsil, the archival footage in The Black Panthers reminds us just how often the nightly mainstream news framed each new clash as “police” versus “Negroes.” It didn’t take long for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to peg the Black Panthers as the largest threat to American security in existence, and in declassified internal memos, Hoover warned of the potential rise of a black “messiah” able to cross over and galvanize supporters among the liberal white factions of society.
This, the film argues, with considerable evidence on the record behind it, led to the targeted killing of Illinois Panther chairman Fred Hampton.
Already Nelson’s documentary has generated controversy. Elaine Brown, who was interviewed for the film, headed the Black Panthers from 1974 to 1977, after things had dissipated. Brown recently wrote about Nelson’s film, calling it “a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America’s oppressive status quo.” The film, to her taste, downplays ideology for too-familiar bloodshed.
I didn’t experience it the same way, although you could certainly say The Black Panthers is a comfortably PBS’d treatment of a seriously radical movement.
Nelson, whose previous documentaries include The Murder of Emmett Till and Freedom Summer, wisely turns most of the story over to Panther Party members who were there, and who bring decades of hard-won perspective on the good and the bad. A majority-female operation at its peak, the Black Panthers Party wasn’t equipped to handle an orderly pursuit of its manifesto; the leaders at the top weren’t built that way.
There are entire films to be made (many have been made already) on what happened to Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver, and Seale. The latter, alive and living in the Bay Area, is conspicuously missing from this movie. But not much else is. Its voices speak directly to, and from, an era and a charged response to that era.
And in archival news footage, when we see the Johnson-era protest signs decrying law enforcement brutality, The Black Panthers relates to our present moment without even trying.
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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Director: Stanley Nelson
Rated: Unrated (strong language, bloodshed)
Running time: 116 min.