Sometimes, movies are released at exactly the right time, gaining impact and resonance thanks to events in the offscreen world.
Stanley Nelson’s new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is accomplished and compelling, if not particularly daring in any way aesthetically. It’s an earnest, crisply edited entry in the standard format – talking heads reminiscing, wisely incorporated archival footage and photos, an awesome period soundtrack – and it seeks to tell the Panthers’ story as comprehensively as it can. It is totally successful on its terms, and as good an entry point into this history as any.
Released in 2015, though, with multiple incidents across the country suddenly highlighting the widespread police brutality that’s always been there in Black and poor communities, the film takes on an added urgency. These issues have never gone away, but a lot of eyes are on them right now. This makes the early footage of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organizing locally against the racist police in Oakland, California all the more inspiring, and the ultimate splintering and dissolution of the Black Panther Party all the more distressing.
Nelson tells the story of the Black Panther Party chronologically. We follow it from its birth in Oakland as a local self-defense and cop-watch group, to the spread of chapters across the country, to the eventual international office in Algeria headed up by an exiled Eldridge Cleaver. The murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago is covered in detail, as is the notorious four-hour shoot-out in Los Angeles that followed.
Along the way, we learn from former Panthers like Elaine May about the roles and identities of women in the Party, and efforts to address problematic gender relations. A major theme in the film is the tension between those, like Newton, pushing the “Survival Pending Revolution” programs (free breakfasts for kids, free medical clinics, housing assistance), and others, like Cleaver, who argued that the job of the Panthers was armed revolution, not social services.
To the film’s credit, the contrast is not exactly that tidy. A range of voices insist that, in the tumult of the period and in an organization that spread like wildfire, things were complicated. The creation of J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which explicitly sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” the Panthers (among others) and prevent the rise of what Hoover called “a Black Messiah,” complicated things further. The assassination of Fred Hampton by Chicago Police is the awful capstone of this campaign, but the FBI’s manipulation is everywhere, and in ways a lot subtler than open murder. The Bureau accomplished their mission eventually, with the split between Newton and Cleaver, leading to increasingly authoritarian and erratic leadership all around. It’s not pretty.
Somehow, the film also fits in a long segment on Bobby Seale’s outrageous treatment during the Chicago 8 trial after the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the Panther 21 acquittal in New York, and much else besides. It’s a credit to Nelson that the movie never feels overstuffed. It covers a wide range of events deftly, and incorporates numerous perspectives without ever really dragging.
On the other hand, it never really soars. With one exception: when one of the Panthers involved in the L.A. shootout thinks back on being trapped in a sandbagged building, in a pitched battle with the LAPD, his eyes light up and he says, “I never felt so free.” It’s a rare electric moment (the audience at the SF Film Fest broke into applause). For the most part, though, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution has a story to tell, and does so in a straightforward, workmanlike fashion.
Which is fine. It’s a hell of a story, filled with lessons about self-determination, organizing, power, and the dangers resistance movements face. During the Q&A after the film, Nelson said they’re trying to raise a bit more money to hold local screenings across the country, in addition to its theatrical release and eventual airing on PBS. He mentioned bringing it to Ferguson, and more generally to audiences that don’t go to film festivals. It’s a smart idea for a timely film.