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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Young and Black Is Where It's At
by Donald Levit

Sundance première and Human Rights Watch Festival prior to theatrical release, co-producer and writer Stanley Nelson’s twelfth directorial feature is The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

PBS non-fiction meat-and-potatoes stuff, though its bent is clear it offers a corresponding don’t-rock-the-boat, an ultimate pulling back from baldly and boldly declaring what might alienate the larger viewing public. That this can still be so in the nation’s decade of Fergusons indicates that the road ahead remains long. That said, the hundred-sixteen minutes does gather impactful historical footage and stills, largely b&w, set alongside present color interviews with celebrated, now aged, figures of the era. (Printed end-details about others are thankfully limited.)

Swedish The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 provided a sympathetic, outsider and thus interesting but incomplete view of the time, its moods and its movements. The American filmmaker rightly sensed that “the little known history hadn’t been told in its entirety,” that it had been distorted by mainstream media, that the macho black-jacketed and -bereted gloved-fist image was poster sexy but not the heart of the BPP and its objectives.

Not much time is devoted to the sociopolitical and cultural ambience, too enormous a topic to enter upon. Rather, with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale as more or less founding fathers in Reagan-era Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense began life as what the name proclaimed, opposition to police brutalization of blacks, especially young males. In their standard garb, which it is claimed also made sunglasses more popular, members conspicuously armed themselves, initially in Don’t Tread on Me deterrence and later for actual Wild West shootouts like the August 1970 SWAT vs. brothers such as Roland Freeman, who reveals that, with most folks smoking back then, they inserted cigarette filters into nostrils to withstand tear gas.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Olympics gesture, Malcolm X and the bulk of anti-Vietnam War unrest are not here. Those are among simply too much outside the Panthers themselves, even if the MLK assassination, 1968 Democratic Convention and Chicago 21 and a separate same-city 8 then 7 and at last Chicago 10 and Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom are lightly touched upon. Instead, to hand-clapping internal and external music, there is a good deal on the Party’s savvy publicity coups, expanding national scope and chapters, its newspaper with Minister of Culture/Art Director Emory Douglas’ memorable drawings, free children’s breakfasts, health clinics, education and other community programs. The high-profile visibility of them and their efforts encouraged, or greatly contributed to, Black Is Beautiful, Afros or naturals, and long-overdue pride and swagger.

There is no Angela Davis -- who came from money -- but there are interviews with other former female Panthers, many of them now college professors or professionals. Among them, Kathleen Cleaver recalls her and late ex-husband Eldridge’s separate flight to and exile in Algeria and attempt to organize Pan-African Pantherism. Singled out for particular villainy is J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI infiltrator spies, defamation tactics and strong-arm and firepower attacks. The cover-up overkill of Fred Hampton, catchy “Free Huey” campaign, college students and radical chic are here, too, amidst a mass of such disturbing news footage that the bland ending seems a coming down from the rush, as for example Seale’s turn to politics as normal in a run for mayor of Oakland and Newton’s paranoiac nastiness and isolation.

The Party splintered into irreconcilable factions, vaguely along Cleaver or Newton poles: those who favored working with white liberals and groups such as New York’s Puerto Rican Young Lords, those who emphasized social activities within marginalized communities, those who adhered to some sort of Marxist anti-capitalism struggle, those who advocated armed resistance. The Panthers were, it is remarked, energized by, and yet doomed by, their enthusiasm and their youth. Their moment passed, its core unknown to succeeding generations; but, however co-opted, swept up, bought out or wiped out, their legacy lives. Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.

(A Firelight Film production; not rated by MPAA.)

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