Asserting Power: New doc chronicles the history of the Black Panthers


At the core of Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the allure of power and beauty, of young black men and women garbed in dark leather, their Afros like great crowns upon their heads. In black-and-white photographs and archival footage, Nelson celebrates them, their raised fists, their shouts of “Black power” and “Power to all the people,” proud and seemingly invincible, their sleek shotguns and rifles slung over their shoulders. The weapons are always there, seeming extensions of the body, and as undercurrents of violence rippling through the documentary, which is a history of the Black Panther Party.

Tarika Lewis, then a student, describes the moment she walked into a Black Panthers office to join the political organization. There was laughter, she says, referring to the largely male and famously chauvinist party atmosphere, and then she asked: “Could I have a gun?” One of Nelson’s male subjects describes his reaction to the news story about armed Black Panthers, led by Bobby Seale, who waltzed into the State Assembly in Sacramento, California, in 1967, an act of defiance that first placed the party in the national spotlight: “Man, I want to be part of this,” he says, “whatever that is.” Wayne Pharr, who as a young Black Panther was involved in a five-hour gun battle with police in Los Angeles, says that he had never felt so in control. “I was a free Negro,” he declares, traces of anger and regret in his eyes, as he leans toward the camera.

Nelson’s opening montage, with clips from the Vietnam War, battles for independence in Africa and Cuba, and a gunfight in a residential neighborhood, provide a historical backdrop, as one of his subjects comments that if there had to be fighting, many felt that there was no reason not to keep it in Oakland. Another of Nelson’s female subjects continues that train of thought, remarking that in this era of unrest and racial strife, “rage was in the streets.” The screen again explodes with scenes of urban violence, interspersed with footage from “Soul Train,” the groundbreaking variety show, the only one when it began in 1971 to feature a regular black troupe of dancers and singers. Putting aside the “talking heads” in The Black Panthers, and judging it through its historical photographs and archival footage alone, we witness a neighborhood, the Black Panthers’ founding in Oakland and, by extension, a country, so suffused with violence that death is inevitable.

The documentary’s eponymous shining knights of Panther power, “Black is beautiful,” the vanguard of “Free Huey” and “Free Angela,” whose initial purpose was one of self-defense, of combing the streets of Oakland to protect their brothers and sisters from police brutality, move inexorably in Nelson’s view to the rhythms not of soul music but of a danse macabre. If empowerment was their message to the people, power was their watchword with the police and the capitalist state. In Göran Olsson’s documentary, Black Power Mixtape (2011), comprised of found footage by Swedish journalists of this era, Congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, sporting her signature coiffure that was not an Afro, is asked about the Black Panthers. “They understand me,” she declares, “because they understand the exercise of power.”

While The Black Panthers is an expertly edited mosaic of the political party, constructed from the viewpoints of many of its members, Nelson’s approach is chronological. At the start, this accounts for some of the hope and the captivating imagery that characterizes the history of the first years of the party’s existence. The documentary details the 1967 statehouse incident in which some Assembly members, in response to the rise of the Black Panther protection squads, attempted to repeal the California law which allowed citizens to carry exposed weapons. The Black Panthers’ dramatic stunt, that Kathleen Cleaver (Eldridge Cleaver’s wife) recently stated in an interview with Amy Goodman was her idea, only stalled the legislators’ actions. Later, then Governor Ronald Reagan signed a new bill into law that criminalized the carrying of firearms.

Nelson goes on to chronicle many of the Black Panthers’ achievements, such as their trailblazing breakfast program for children, and the indisputable effect of the party to inspire pride in black Americans, and respect from the radical Left. As Mike Klonsky of the Students for a Democratic Society remarks, the Black Panthers were viewed as “the vanguard of the revolution.” Nelson also details the Panthers’ well-known confrontations with police, and the FBI’s racist campaign to “neutralize” them. Many of his subjects provide eyewitness accounts, even of the SWAT team that murdered Fred Hampton, one of the party’s most promising organizers, and its most eloquent spokesperson for racial unity.

The filmmaker also includes a segment on the Black Panthers’ reputation for marginalizing and oppressing women members, although no mention is made of Stokely Carmichael’s infamous remark that the position of women in the party is “prone.” Founding member Bobby Seale appears only briefly in the documentary, mostly in archival footage, and Angela Davis is notably absent. She figured prominently in many of the Panthers’ struggles, and was jailed for her alleged role in the Soledad Brothers case, in which three black men were accused of killing a prison guard. Among other things, Davis, who is a radical feminist, first raised awareness of the racial divide in prison populations as being a reflection of America’s racism.

The Black Panthers, which will screen at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City on June 21 and open at New York’s Film Forum on Sept. 2, marks Nelson’s theatrical debut, although the MacArthur Fellow has made many PBS documentaries. Among them are The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), an excellent documentary about black journalists and the role black newspapers played in the construction of a distinct racial identity, and The Freedom Riders (2011), the story of interracial groups who rode side-by-side on interstate transport in the 1960s, in order to draw national attention to the companies’ discriminatory practices against black citizens.