Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 03, 2015 10:59 am 
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A time of hope and disappointment for African-Americans

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a new film by African-American PBS documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. He has already made The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2005), and Freedom Riders (2010), as well as the 2014 Freedom Summer, to mention only a few. This time he focuses on the Sixties' most visible, charismatic, and galvanizing radical group. There's no narrator, and none is needed. There are amazing stills and films and a host of current voices, including Kathleen Cleaver, Panther lieutenants and admirers, FBI members and cops, all unified by the driving beat of funk-liberation music from the time. What the film lacks in completeness it makes up in overall truth and the flow of a hymn.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was created in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, inspired by the ideas of Malcolm X, who had been assassinated the year before. It was meant not as a terrorist organization but a radical revolutionary party to fight police brutality and the capitalist system and empower black people. It began with a brilliant self-promotional campaign based on a public image -- ranks of handsome leather-clad young men in berets and dark glasses toting rifles in California government spaces. Newton and Seale had learned it was legal in the state to bear arms as long as they were openly displayed. This was a gesture showing the boldness and new spirit of the late Sixties, a gesture clearly intimidating for overzealous cops and emboldening for African-Americans. The striking uniform included rounded Afro hairstyles that enhanced their wearers' blackness and pride. Though clearly the Party fits perfectly with today's post-Ferguson "Black Lives Matter" movement, black people were dressier, more uniform, and cooler looking back then, it almost seems. (Their youths, particularly their women, were also not yet overweight; and the Panthers were to have a lot of young female members, and for several years, a woman at the helm, Elaine Brown -- who condemns this film.) How well the young converts illustrated their slogan "black is beautiful" is the essential first message of this as a film, rather than what we would get from a "mere" historical text.

His subtitle signals Nelson's enthusiasm and the Party leaders' dream rather than historical fact. Thanks to internal contradictions and the will of J.Edgar Hoorver's FBI's COINTELPRO program to spy on and infiltrate the Party, despite the Black Panthers' thousands of free breakfasts served to poor kids, they were designated by the government as a terrorist organization. They were crushed,and there was no vanguard and no revolution, only the hope for them. Nonetheless the film's most exciting moment comes when we see Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton, who strongly opposed racism as well as sexism, organizing the Black Panthers' Rainbow Coalition and meeting with white leftist radicals, "hillbillies," and Latinos to share common cause. At that point it does look very like the beginning of a revolution. The makings were there. Hampton was an intelligent and voluble leader. But this was America, with its legacy of oppression of the black man and its abhorrence of political multiplicity.

Still, Nelson celebrates a moment that even white liberals can cherish, as evidenced by a rave review in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, who is enthusiastic and feels the film's inability to provide direct testimony from Cleaver and Newton (who are dead) and Seale (still alive at 78 but for some unknown reason not heard from), does not limit the film's scope because it "allows us to see them through the eyes of their followers, and to see from a distance how they reflected the passions of their moment." Truly, we see, this was a time of hope and dreams on the edge of realization and the Panthers caught the imagination of young black people all over the country. Nelson shows us how Party branches sprang up in numerous cities, fanning out from its birthplace in Oakland. The free breakfasts included indoctrination, not shown here, but had real impact in themselves as a force for good.

But the organization was at war with itself, torn between pride and rage, between the Panthers of the free breakfast side who favored self-help and empowerment of black people and the gun-toting, slogan-yelling Eldridge Cleaver side overtly advocating government overthrow and international revolution. (After all, Malolm X's own political positions had been a work in progress.) As the years went on and the government war on the Panthers caused its numbers to dwindle and potential converts to shy away, Newton and Cleaver, the latter having fled to Algeria and the former having been long held in prison, finally became crazy and carried out reciprocal vendettas, assassinating each other's cadres.

The Panthers had intelligence as well as good looks, and some of their members wrote and spoke splendid English, witness, for one example, Cleaver's bestselling book, Soul on Ice. But they seem an organization without ideological coherence. The violent side of the Party tainted its positive side, aroused police suspicion and gave government enemies an excuse to attack; calling police "pigs" said it all. A cop from the time recounts going up to a very cute little black girl to say "hi" and being met with a "Fucking pig!" This hostile pose, exemplified by Eldridge Cleaver's wild pronouncements, made it easy to build white fear and get Richard Nixon reelected on a "law and order" ticket. Law and order are all that matters, J. Edgar Hoover is seen enunciating; and "justice," in his view, a relatively trivial detail.

The FBI's actions bore out this principle. What followed were the police assassinations of Black Panthers at home -- when they could have been rousted with tear gas and arrested. There were many Black Panther leaders, and many cut down in gun fights or put in jail (the end crawl tells us twenty are still in prison today). But others went on to hold elective office, and Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and almost won. The Panthers are a symbol of empowerment and hope for African-Americans, but what happened to them through the years is only an example of the American authorities' skill at political repression.

Stanley Nelson certainly is assembling a significant body of documentary films about Black experience in America and this is a striking example. Perhaps there should be a retrospective of his work. His last, Freedom Summer, was a gem. This one is vibrant and fluid, but feels, perhaps necessarily, chaotic, despite a number of sane voices, including that of Ms. Cleaver; there is often the feeling that it's a breezy picture of a far more tangled story.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, 113 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2015 and showed at fifteen other US festivals, opening theatrically 2 September 2015 (Film Forum NYC, Landmark Nuart LA).

See also the reviews by Oleg Ivanov for Slant, Dennis Harvey for Variety and Anthony Lane for The New Yorker. Armond White lists pros and cons of the film in National Review.

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