SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2015
By Don Simpson | January 24, 2015
Director: Stanley Nelson
Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens with the story of the three blind men and an elephant to illustrate that the Black Panther Party meant something different to everyone. When the organization was formed in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale’s goal was to put an end to police brutality against Blacks in Oakland, California with legally militarized patrols. The Panthers enjoyed a meteoric rise to the national consciousness due to the media appeal of Black men clad in black leather jackets and berets, brandishing guns in public places like the State Capitol grounds in Sacramento. With this free publicity, their membership grew exponentially and chapters began to pop up around the country.
Totally unprepared for all of the attention that they gained, the Panthers seemed destined to self-destruct from the very beginning, especially once they became targeted as a threat by the United States government. Making certain that the Panthers would never become a unified entity with a single, well-respected leader (a “messiah”), J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI’s top secret counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to destroy the Panthers from the inside. The FBI also knew that if Panther leaders were trapped in prison, the organization would grow increasingly fragmented. This is when the aforementioned analogy to the blind men and the elephant really makes the most sense.
Nelson’s documentary relies heavily upon talking head interviews to capture the multitude of perspectives (Seale is strangely missing from the interviewees). The Black Panthers takes a very black and white perspective when chronicling the Panthers’ interactions with the police; though in most cases the Panthers were probably right and the police were probably wrong, Nelson seems afraid to question the legitimacy of the Panthers’ actions. For example, Nelson does not care if Newton actually killed Oakland police officer John Frey or not, he merely focuses on the media attention that the “Free Huey!” protests received. That said, Nelson has no qualms about revealing the warts of the Panther leadership — Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, specifically, are shown in fairly unfavorable light.
The timing of The Black Panthers could not be more perfect, with police brutality against Black populations once again getting media attention across the United States. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Black Panther Party, there is a Black President in the White House, but otherwise it seems like very little has changed. Well, okay, the mainstream media’s perspective has changed; Black militant groups would never be glamorized in the same way that Panthers were in the late 1960s. Now when the media covers protests of police brutality, they focus solely on the supposed violent and destructive acts of the “unruly mob” rather than the purpose of the protest itself. Maybe — just maybe — The Black Panthers will remind the media that revolution is incredibly sexy and it should be televised.