THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION

2015; written and directed by Stanley Nelson; 115 mins

Black Power was like so many half-heard-about groups when I was a kid. Always represented as an anomalous, uncouth, violent, disruptive group to be lumped in with the IRA, unions and other peoples’ kids in supermarkets. When and how my opinions were opened up on the Panthers, I’m not sure but certainly Göran Hugo Olsson‘s hugely underrated found footage documentary, Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 was a major catalyst. There is a rich and vibrant cinematic history on the subject of the Civil Rights movement, going way back to Agnès Varda‘s short doco, Black Panthers, from 1968 (beautiful footage from which which is used a lot and very well here). Here is a really solidly put together addition to the canon, succeeding at being an overall history of the equally fiery rise and fall of this truly revolutionary group.

Taking in the testimonies of Party members, leaders, FBI informants, police officers, artists, bodyguards, founders, followers, journalists and historians, the film encompasses the seven to eight year period from the late 60s to the mid 70s when the Panthers rose and fell under intense scrutiny in the eyes of the world. Starting with Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, two African American students who bonded, influenced by the teachings and actions of Che Guevara, Malcolm X and many others, deciding to set up their own movement based on challenging the legal institutions in America that manipulated the constitution to constantly oppress black people on a daily basis. Very quickly, they became national news and they were overwhelmed with members and support for the cause. However, with power came the threat of police, government and mainstream media attention, in particular the beady eyes of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI…

What Stanley Nelson and editor Aljernon Tunsil manage to do with this film is to marshal so many elements and threads and themes into a documentary that is never confusing. You are constantly aware of who’s who, who did what when and went where whilst wearing whatever. So, at the same time you have party spokesman Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, escaping a murky charge of attempted murder, the film can concurrently document his ideological split with Newton and you are never baffled as to what’s going on.

Very few films I would recommend as a teaching tool because of cinema’s inherent compromise of fact due it’s being an edited form but this is a film that should be shown in schools. Whilst it is obviously in favour of the party, it is also unabashed about discussing it’s self-destructive tendencies and the failings of certain individuals within it. However, it does give you a loud and clear indication of the underhand methods used by the US authorities to frame the Panthers and how that was stoked into outright criminality under the Nixon regime. This is a really smart, vital piece of cinematic documentary filmmaking and hopefully should act as a gateway to the many, many thoughtful and absorbing films about this hugely misrepresented subject.

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