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Film Review

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

The urban unrest and riots in America in the 1960's seem far distant now, but the number of unarmed black men still being killed by the police show that we have not made as much progress as we would like to think. FBI statistics state that about 96 black persons per year are killed by police but does not separate the number who were unarmed. Informed estimates are one third of the men killed had been unarmed. But the number of total deaths is widely believed to be under reported. The statistics also show that unarmed black men are 7 times more likely than unarmed white men to die from police gunfire. In a dark way, it is progress that recent killings have become widely known, such as Michael Brown (Ferguson), Eric Garner (New York City), Sam DuBose (Cincinnati), Christian Taylor (Arlington, Texas) and more. Probably the most important factor in increased publicity of these deaths are the ubiquity of cell phone videos made by bystanders. Everyone has one now, and often the videos contradict police accounts of the deaths. So it is surely understandable that blacks, especially men, feel that they are specifically targeted because they are black.

Stanley Nelson Jr., a black documentary film maker, has produced 22 films since 1990, most critically acclaimed, such as The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (1998), The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), Wounded Knee (2009), and Freedom Summer (2014). Many of his films have also been shown on PBS, which has helped finance some of his projects. As is obvious from the titles, Nelson tends to focus on the 20th Century black experience in America, especially those that illustrate oppression and racism. He has received a number of awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a George Peabody award. His latest film, which took 7 years to make, is The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

The Black Panthers were a black far left revolutionary group that began in 1966, originating right across the Bay in Oakland, California. The two principal organizers were Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, both of whom were charismatic speakers, and later Eldridge Cleaver. The initial idea was to organize men to monitor the police in black neighborhoods. These teams of men carried loaded weapons and while designed to protect the black community from police violence, were also designed to intimidate the police. They deliberately dressed to intimidate, with their trademark black leather jackets, black berets, big Afros, and often carrying rifles and shotguns. They modeled themselves into a para military organization, with close order drills, all designed to intimidate. In 1967 they went to the Assembly in Sacramento in a show of force to persuade the legislature not to pass a bill that would ban the carrying of loaded weapons. Ironically, they quoted the Second Amendment. The Panthers quickly became very media savvy; reporters and photographers flocked to their events and news conferences. And they attracted celebrities to their cause, such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda. Photos of armed black men in front of various government buildings became front page items. Although this sold papers, main stream media was hostile. This willingness to challenge racist practices with such militant postures created a real sense of pride and power, which in turn attracted many young men and women. Black Panther chapters quickly opened in other cities with large black populations, such as Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Washington and Philadelphia, and by 1970 there were over 60 cities with chapters.

The Black Panthers also began community service programs, such as their very successful breakfasts for children, which not only provided much needed meals but highlighted the continued poverty in the black community. From the beginning, women played an important role. Although Panther leaders claimed that women had equal leadership roles, this became true only because so many of the men in leadership positions had been arrested, fled, or killed. Articulate, charismatic women like Angela Davis, Elaine Brown (much interviewed in this film) and Kathleen Cleaver became national leaders often pictured in the newspapers. Elaine Brown, ever witty, responding to a complaint that there was still rampant sexism in the movement, said "These brothers did not come from revolutionary heaven."

The Panthers attracted so many members so quickly that J Edgar Hoover was fearful that they would produce a "black messiah" that would mobilize urban blacks and begin a real revolution. He called them "the greatest threat to the internal security of this country." So Hoover set out to destroy or cripple the Panthers in an operation called Cointelpro. He leaked exaggerated accounts of the Panthers' misdoings, which probably didn't require much exaggeration. The FBI hired informers, one of whom is interviewed in this film. The informer says that it was a choice between going to jail or becoming an informer. He was a particularly effective informer because he was one of Bobby Seale's personal guards. And the knowledge that the FBI was suing informers created an even greater sense of paranoia. The police in various cities began active programs of their own including raids on Panther houses. These often resulted in full scale shootouts with Panther deaths. In 1969 in Chicago, a night time police raid on a Panther house killed a famous Panther leader, Fred Hampton. Analysis of the house after the raid showed that it was likely a planned assassination, which Nelson discusses. But by the early 1970's, the Panthers had disintegrated due to infighting between the revolutionary and "accommodationists" factions. At least six murders were caused by this conflict. Nelson's contention that the FBI informer and disinformation program hurt the Panthers is undoubtedly true, but much of the Panthers' decline was self inflicted.

Nelson's documentary has an enormous amount of material including not well known archival stills and footage. He has chosen not to use a narrator, relying instead on a large number of talking heads, most of whom are riveting. They include many ex-Panthers, historians, authors, an FBI informer, and even policemen who had confronted the group. Elaine Brown has much to say. Unfortunately, with the exception of Elaine Brown, Nelson was not able to interview those leaders still living, such as Bobby Seale. Seale had run for Mayor of Oakland (1972) but was narrowly defeated by a conservative white candidate. At a Q&A after a recent screening, Nelson said he wanted to interview Seale for his film but that "we could not reach an agreement". Presumably this had to do with final approval of his interview. The legacy of the Black Panthers is still debated, and Nelson should have discussed this further.

The Black Panthers; Vanguard of the Revolution, is a fascinating film, especially if you were living in the Bay Area during the 1960's and 70's. It is a important film, looking at a very controversial (at the time) group that had wanted a real revolution in the relationship between blacks and the rest of America. I was out of the country from 1965 to 1971, so missed much of this turbulent history. Yet I was riveted by this film, and expect it to become an essential element in any critical study of American history. Screening at Opera Plaza, the Rafael, the Piedmont (Oakland), and the Shattuck (Berkeley) but does not seem to be playing on the Peninsula. Running time: 116 minutes.

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