‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’ is an informative, high quality movie that explores an important era and movement in U.S. history.
Ever since the first slaves were captured in Africa for transport overseas to North America, there has been a history of violence against Black men and women on this continent. The brutality of slavery remained after the institution was banned in 1865. Records show that from 1882-1968, 3,446 Blacks were lynched. That’s slightly over 40 a year. The lynchings were concentrated in the South, with some states having no lynchings of Blacks at all. After 1935, lynching subsided to near zero. (ibid) Remember, these are lynchings that were reported. Who knows how many more hundreds of unreported lynchings occurred.
There were thousands of other murders of African Americans after the Civil War; White’s didn’t give up their dominance quietly. As lynchings subsided, race riots against entire Black communities increased. Thousands, mainly Blacks, were killed during these riots that were instigated by White mobs. The summer of 1919 is know as “Red Summer” for the large number of race riots. More than 100 people were killed and thousands were left homeless in over 26 riots across the country that year. (ibid)
There were many causes of these riots. In all but a few cases, Whites instigated them. They occurred during times of economic depression and dislocation, when Whites felt the most threatened by the Black minority. Often, they occurred after trumped up racial charges were made against a Black person. Police also helped instigate these riots. And the riots almost always occurred in the Black majority communities. (ibid)
Slavery, lynching, and races riots are major parts of the history of violence against Blacks in the United States. Is there any wonder that during the Civil Rights Movement there would be communities organizing around Black self-defense?
Documentaries are as close to a guarantee of good cinema today as we get today, and The Black Panthers proves that dictum once again. There are a several reasons for this. First, the characters don’t have to act or learn their lines; the lines are already spoken. Also, if a director chooses to take on the topic, it is likely that the plot (story) is compelling with some surprises in it. There are fewer filters documentaries have to pass through to get produced such as test screenings and studio executives demanding that the film comes in under budget or that the filmmakers hire multi-million dollar stars and insist on fabulous special effects. Documentaries like The Black Panthers face no such obstacles and the story is already written. The art is in the telling.
The full title of the film shows us the communist leanings of the group: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution. Vanguard is the term used by communists to describe the organized leadership of a revolution. Yes, that is how highly the Panthers thought of themselves; they called themselves the ‘Vanguard of a Revolution.’ After seeing the film, it is hard to dispute this depiction.
The main characters were members and leaders of the Black Panther Party, including Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Clever, with an important supporting role played by Fred Hampton. Hampton was pivotal because as a focal point, the “vanguard of the vanguard”, he scared FBI director Hoover as a potential “black messiah.” Hampton, more than any other Panther, is portrayed as the man who could unify not only blacks but poor people of all races. Suffice to say, the film documents his rise, his charisma, his power and his life in his brief time on screen.
Hoover targeted activists of all kinds with the FBI’s counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO). However, over 80% of their actions targeted the Panthers. Suffice to say, the rise of Black power frightened the White establishment and much of the movie is about the quick rise of the Panther Party and how police and the FBI targeted them with surveillance, arrests, murder, raids and other tactics.
The film suggests that the reasons for the Panther Party being targeted was their power and their consciousness raising of the populous. Moreover, the film suggests that the rhetoric of the party around self defense and ‘killing pigs’ made them a target more than they already were. The police used this rhetoric to get people to support illegal police raids and violent actions against the Panthers.
PBS is one of the major funders of the film. After the movie was well received by at the Sun Dance Film Festival, PBS Distribution decided to release it in movie theaters this fall. That was a great decision. It is timely and historic as are many of the best documentaries.
The current issues around Black Lives Matter and the Black men and women being killed with impunity in this nation is a repeat of the murder of Blacks in the Panther Party five decades earlier. The issue of gun rights is an important backdrop of the movie when the Panthers insisted on using the open carry laws of California at the time to bring their guns to arrests of Black drivers and eventually into the capital building in Sacramento, CA. They were there to protest a bill that would end open carry in the state. This was clearly not what the NRA had in mind; Blacks using the gun rights the Association touted.
The Panther Party was not just about self defense for African Americans or Black Power, the Party wanted to “dismantle capitalism.” Their 10 point party platform states, “We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.” Moreover, it proclaims, “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.” The Party did not call itself Marxist or Maoist, but it called for an end to capitalist exploitation, especially of African Americans.
The archival footage of the movement and party is well used, dramatic and informative. The footage not only documents the history, it documents the characters’ relative positions in the movement. The use of photos and interviews to show us the political and cultural context in which the panthers emerged as a movement is brilliant. The film is more than a history lesson, it is a lesson about race and power.
And if you think the film is an homage to the Party, think again. Not only were there several interviews with police, government agents and others critical of the Panthers in the film, the film itself questions some of the Party’s tactics. It shows the inner conflicts, the split between the Cleaver and Newton factions, the failures of some parts of its program as a movement and its successes. In fact, the trajectory of the Black Panthers as a movement is very much like that of other social movements of the 60s and 70s, whether it was civil rights, peace, free speech or other movements that challenged and were fought by the power of the state.
Certainly, in the end, the film puts the overall goals of the Panthers in a good light, even while questioning some of its actions. The film hints at the sexism within the movement in the film, having women do the cooking and cleaning, i.e. ‘women’s work’ and the men carrying the guns. It could have done more of that for my taste. There was also the suggestion that some of the Panthers were commodifying the revolution, making cash off the movement. Some even questioned the Party’s successful food program: “Is free food enough.”
Rating: Pay Full Price
The ending lags and gets a bit overly sentimental. That is a minor flaw. I like the film a lot, but there is no need to see it more than once. What I plan to do is read more about the history of the movement and the characters from the film.