Black Panthers Documentary (all too) Relevant for Today

Directed by Stanley Nelson, Jr.
PBS Distribution, 115 minutes, Unrated.
 * * **

If you’ve not yet seen this powerful documentary on the Black Panthers, see it ASAP. If you wonder why you’d want to take a trip—and not always a pleasant one—back in time, Google “Black Lives Matter” and you’ll have your answer.

Director Stanley Nelson, Jr. isn’t always entirely on the level, but his film is remarkably balanced in showing both the attractions and weaknesses of the Black Panthers from a black point of view. This alone is a revelation. As one old enough to recall, it often seemed that whites had one of two views of the Black Panther Party (BPP): romantic or fearful; that is, those who glorified the BPP and thought everything it did was justified, and those who agreed with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that they were terrorists. Nelson shows them as more complex and he—through former Panther William Calhoun—reminds us of their “youthful vigor.” Like many 1960s social activists, youthful Panthers were a sometimes volatile mix of idealism, impatience, insight, and naivet√©. It also had what Kathleen Cleaver called the “swagger” of youth. Several commentators remarked upon the seductive coolness of Panthers in their shades, leather jackets, and defiance. To fearful whites they were a raised fist to the face of propriety and comfort—and that was the point! The BPP actually formed first in Alabama, but it was in the streets of 1966 Oakland where it took off. As Calhoun observed, there was no difference between how African Americans were treated in Alabama vis-√†-vis Oakland. The BPP was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and those automatic weapons they carried were there because they had, for too long, been gunned down by racist cops for reasons roughly as good as those that led to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, or Eric Garner’s in 2014.

Nelson mines archival video and crosscuts it with recent interviews, talking heads analysis, and voice-overs. He has some superb footage, like Bobby Seale on a talk show cohosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, old Soul Train episodes, and Ronald Reagan at his tough-cowboy worst. Numerous movement figures discuss their involvement in the organization and why they joined. The only reenactments are those involving FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Stu Richel) and that’s because Hoover’s role was crucial in defining and declawing the BPP. Hoover was singularly obsessed with preventing the rise of a “Black Messiah” and the sight of Panthers ringing the California legislature carrying automatic weapons firmed his resolve to crush them. (It also led the National Rifle Association to call for strict gun control laws!) Huey Newton was railroaded on a manslaughter charge in 1968; though public pressure forced his release, he was ultimately too volatile to be that messiah. Ditto Eldridge Cleaver, who escaped prosecution by fleeing to Algeria. Bobby Seale had his own legal woes, and Stokely Carmichael was never a good fit. Soon, Hoover’s COINTELPRO spy network exacerbated the rift between Newton and Cleaver, which split the BPP into irreconcilable factions, one that wanted to emphasize revolution and the other community service. First, though, the most-promising messiah, Fred Hampton, had to go, a task accomplished when Chicago police and the FBI executed him in 1969. One of the more potent messages from the documentary is that the BPP, for all its revolutionary rhetoric, contained more victims than rebels. As was the case for most groups on Hoover’s watch list, civil liberties and legal niceties seldom stood in the way of eliminating “subversives.”

Does Nelson romanticize the Panthers? Though he’s no doe-eyed worshipper, the objective answer is yes. He assiduously avoids discussing the fact that many of its leaders were doctrinaire communists, or that the BPP did, on occasion, precipitate violence rather than simply react to it. He argues that the Panthers were not anti-white, but ignores lots of (admittedly heated) rhetoric that took that tone. In a related vein, the BPP’s relationship to the broader New Left is not developed. Perhaps most glaring is his gloss of BPP sexism. Let’s just say that women got a more respectful airing in this film than most got in BPP meetings, and that you’d never guess that Elaine Brown, who chaired the Panthers from 1974-77, was one of the biggest critics of Panther sexism.

If Nelson sugarcoats a bit, he doesn’t shy from BPP weaknesses such as the cults of personality it fostered, the egoism of Newton and Cleaver, and the very idea that Panthers could win an armed struggle against the federal government. For the most part, Nelson serves up a first-rate history lesson. The BPP did not accomplish a revolution, but remember that Nelson called it a “vanguard.” Black Lives Matter, Martin, Garner, and others remind us that history’s final chapter is yet to be written.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The NRA’s response to armed Black Panthers shielded by the Second Amendment spawned an idea for the gun control movement: give every illegal immigrant a firearm!  

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