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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (A Movie Review)

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of Revolution

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of Revolution


Featuring Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, Emory Douglas, Ericka Huggins, William Calhoun, Wayne Pharr, Elaine Brown, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Julian Bond, Mark Kurlansky, Marvin X, Rita Williams-Garcia, Jim Dunbar, Lise Parlman, Jeff Hass, M. Wesley Swearingen, Clayborne Carson, Scot Brown, Donna Murch, Felipe Luciano, Ray Gaul, Ron McCarthy, Pat McKinley and Howard Saffold.

Written by Stanley Nelson.

Directed by Stanley Nelson.

Distributed by PBS Distribution. 116 minutes. Not Rated.

This film is being released at a timely moment in history with the renewed upswing on racial tension, the riots in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, the claims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement coming to prominence.

Perhaps the leaders of that movement would be wise to learn from the triumphs and the mistakes of their forebears in The Black Panthers.

Like Black Lives Matter, The Black Panthers were created as a response to police brutality against blacks.  Originally formed in 1966 in Oakland by political activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seales, the group was founded as a community service, offering many programs including free breakfast for poor children, women’s rights, financial counseling, drug & alcohol counseling, employment referral, free ambulances, clothing drives and many other worthy causes.

Known for their strikingly cool “uniforms” (black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses and large afros), the Panthers also was a sort of guardian angel watchdog group – policing the police, so to speak.  If a black person was arrested the Panthers would show up with rifles, silent witnesses to be sure that the officers did not overstep their legal authority into harassment or abuse.  The Panthers took their name, Newton explains in an archival clip, because the panther is an animal which will watch and back away to a point when confronted, but would attack if cornered.

They were not all good and they were not all evil, like any organization which is made up of disparate people with diverse motivations, needs and styles.  The leaders of the Panthers – mainly the two founders Newton and Seale, and prominent later members Eldridge Cleaver and Fred Hampton – all had very different views of the Panthers and their role in the community.

Seale wanted to try to change things from within – he became very politically active and is to this day.  Newton was more idealistic in his ideas of the party, but he was also extremely determined that it was his way or no way, and eventually his stubbornness disenchanted even his closest allies.  When Newton went to jail for the shooting of a policeman named Officer John Frey, Newton became something of a martyr to the cause.  The film shows several “Free Huey” rallies – though it is a bit hazy on his guilt or innocence in the case.  (Which may simply stem from the fact that there were a lot of differing stories on the shooting.)  Then when Seale also went to jail at about the same time, the leadership of the movement was pretty much up for grabs.

Eldridge Cleaver was already a well-known author when he championed the Black Panther Party.  At first he was a real boon to their expansion, he was smart, charismatic and well-spoken.  However, as one of the talking heads points out here, he was also crazy.  Cleaver wanted the Panthers to be a much more militant organization, preaching violence and chaos as the way.  Eventually he had to flee to Africa, where he tried to run things from afar and also was responsible for taking the movement international.

Fred Hampton was also exceedingly charismatic, he came up through the ranks of the party to front the Chicago chapter, and as much as everyone else Hampton was responsible for getting the word out.  A silver-tongued orator with a patter like a preacher, he was considered so dangerous that members the Chicago Police Department murdered him in a siege of the Chicago headquarters.  (If the term that the police “murdered” Hampton seems incendiary, consider this, they were indicted – though eventually the charges were dropped – and the city of Chicago had to pay Hampton’s family a $1.85 million settlement for the wrongful death).

It was this kind of inner turmoil that eventually destroyed the movement, or at the very least contributed to it dissolution.  The Black Panther movement is long dismantled, the victim of a devious but very successful campaign of infiltration and interior sabotage run by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.  (Despite this fact, FOX “News” to this day insists that the Panthers are still out there wreaking havoc every time two or more black people gather together in protest).

This PBS documentary – which is receiving a brief cinematic release before being aired on the PBS film series Independent Lens early next year – is created by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders,Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple).  It tells a fascinating story, and sadly one that is still all too prescient.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: September 18, 2015.

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