By Miranda Schiller @
With their leather jackets, afros and berets, openly carried guns and raised fists, the Black Panthers have certainly left their mark on the iconography of rebellion and resistance of the 1960s and 1970s. Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, they were originally a self-defence organisation raising arms against police brutality on the streets. Footage of policemen beating up black people is at the start of Stanley Nelson’s documentary, and with its disturbing similarity to much more recent images, he emphasises the relevance of his topic right from the beginning.
Despite their cultural significance, this is the first major documentary film telling their story in its entirety. Nelson has spent seven years researching, conducting interviews and viewing archive footage, and he has made some astounding discoveries. He has set out to set some things straight: There is much more to the Black Panther Party than gun-bearing angry men ready for violent resistance. The movement was actually largely comprised of women, many of them interviewed in this film, who were fighting not only against racism and capitalism, but also sexism – both in wider society and within the movement. And it wasn’t all about guns and self-defence or even aggression. Footage shows their huge free breakfast and health clinic programmes, and their efforts and success in uniting with many other marginalised groups, also smashing the assumption that they were anti-white.
The original footage shows how media savvy the organisation was from the beginning – publishing a newspaper that reached places they never would in person, documenting each and every effort and project, and carefully constructing their images. But none of this protected them from the FBI, which had an elaborate secret programme in use solely to discredit and ultimately destroy them. The film gives a detailed account of the extent of the FBI’s involvement in the ultimate unravelling of the Black Panther Party.
This is complemented with interviews with key figures of the party, notably Kathleen Cleaver, first social secretary of the party and human rights activist to this day (and law professor) and Elbert “Big Man” Howard, editor of the Black Panthers’ newspaper, and still today a community activist, several historians, and even some voices from the “other side”, such as an FBI-recruited undercover informant.
Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution is released today Friday October 23rd.
With this abundance of research and material, the film gives a detailed and well rounded insight into this chapter of recent history – it is long (119 minutes) and very dense, Nelson has certainly opted for information over entertainment, but the story itself is gripping enough to keep the film from being dry or overly educational. He could have maybe kept it a little bit shorter, but it is clearly visible that he had to chuck a lot on the production room floor as it is.
Ultimately, The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution is a lesson on how to challenge, or at least frighten, the powers that be: It is educational to see Reagan himself talk about the need to tighten gun laws only as a reaction to seeing black people defending themselves against police brutality, to see the police only starting to get seriously worried when white students start adopting the insult “pig” that originated in the Black Panthers’ newspaper. It was the unifying power of the Panthers that scared the authorities the most, and that was the prime target of the FBI’s counterintelligence campaign. With that, the film doesn’t only look back on historic events, it acknowledges the relevance of the issues in the present and entices to think about the future, without making any explicit statement – only through intelligent storytelling and a wealth of research.