Black Panthers Documentary Review Essay
by Danny Haiphong
The author endorses former Panther leader Elaine Brown’s critique of the movie, However, Blacks Against Empire, the acclaimed book on the Party, meets his approval as “actual historical analysis that is useful for those seeking lessons from the lived struggle of the Panthers.”
In Defense of the Panthers: Why the Film "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" Should be Put Down, and the book "Black Against Empire" Picked Up
by Danny Haiphong
“It is critical that we to study the history and politics of the Black Panther Party and derive lessons from their struggle.”
The Black Panther Party is one of the most demonized organizations in US history. White supremacists, corporate media tools, and ruling class parasites of all stripes have attempted to soil its legacy since it declined along with the entire radical political movement of the mid 's. The overtly racist critics have called the Black Panther Party gangsters and a Black version of the Ku Klux Klan. These are relatively simple narratives to dispel given the wealth of historical material on the politics and programs of the Black Panther Party. What is harder to address, but just as important to condemn, are the supposedly honest interpreters of the Black Panther Party who debase its history despite claims of doing the opposite.
Meet Stanley Nelson's new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. In nearly two hours, Nelson displays a montage of interviews and video clips that effectively depict the Black Panther Party as a non-ideological, disorganized, and infantile group. There is ZERO mention of the Black Panther Party's revolutionary, socialist orientation. No historical context is given on why or how the Black Panther party formed, or what activities and actions helped grow the organization. Eldridge Cleaver is elevated to superstar status in the film, while Huey Newton is portrayed as a gangster whose best days were spent behind prison walls.
Even worse, Nelson brings on former Panther members and historians who outright smear the Party's legacy. One historian claims in the film that the Panthers "repudiated" the armed struggle in place of their survival programs. In actuality, the Black Panther Party was disarmed by the state through the California legislature's passage of the Mulford Act, which banned the open carry of firearms. The act was specifically created to weaken the Black Panther Party’s influence in the Black community. Survival programs thus represented a logical transition in the Party's political work.
What the film mentions only briefly is how the Panthers maintained armed self-defense when it came to raids on their offices, programs, and residences. More absurdly, the film completely erases how survival programs, which included not only the free breakfast program but also liberation schools, health clinics, and ambulatory services, were adopted under the principle of "survival pending revolution." The Black Panther Party saw the poor Black community as a revolutionary class. Survival programs were formed as a means to relate to the struggle of poor Black Americans and at the same time give the party an opportunity to develop the revolutionary consciousness of the masses.
Of course, the truth does not matter to a film maker intent on debasing the Black Panther Party. Nelson's documentary makes so many errors that it is difficult to focus on just one. Elaine Brown's critique of the film condenses some of the more critical offenses. For one, the film glorifies the erratic Eldridge Cleaver and demonizes Huey P. Newton. Newton was a founder of the Party and his leadership was critical to its growth. In the response to the North Richmond police murder of 22 year-old Denzell Dowell, Newton helped organize the small Oakland chapter to take up an independent investigation of the murder in conjunction with their regular police patrols. The Panthers became adored in North Richmond, as evidenced by the arms they brandished during a Panther-led rally for Dowell. The rally drew national attention and requests for Black Panther chapters elsewhere in the country began to mount. This is just one way Newton was instrumental in the organization’s success throughout its existence.
“Survival programs represented a logical transition in the Party's political work.”
It should be of no surprise that a film so intent on demonizing one of most important ideological and political leaders of the Black Panther Party omitted the context that indeed made the organization the vanguard of the period. Nelson's highlight reel not only misses the context that gave rise Black Panther Party, it contains more than one historical distortion. No mention was made of COINTELPRO's role in fueling the split of the Oakland and New York chapters through a forged letter sent to Huey Newton informing him of a future assassination attempt on his body by the east coast branch. Bobby Hutton's murder was chalked up to his desire to "shoot em up" when in reality it was the Oakland police, and possibly Cleaver's misleadership, who murdered him in cold blood. And finally, another historian makes the claim that independence movements in Vietnam, China, and Algeria were logically attracted to the Black Panthers Party's "Anti-Americanism." Such a racist simplification erases the heroic struggle against imperialism waged by these national liberation struggles and strips the Black Panther Party of their active and independent efforts to forge internationalist solidarity with them.
Luckily for us, there is a secondary account of the Black Panther Party that paints a more accurate picture of the organization's history and politics. Black Against Empire: A History and Politics of the Black Panther Partyuses interviews with members and archived Panther newspapers to present a narrative of the Party's rise and fall. In it, one can find entire chapters dedicated to the historical context that gave rise to the Party, as well as the conditions and efforts that led them to choose Marxist thought as their guide. Rather than tokenize Fred Hampton's assassination as the single expression of the FBI's desire to "prevent the rise of a Black Messiah", Black Against Empire explicitly shows that the US government indeed viewed the Party as a "threat to the internal security of the nation" and employed a multifaceted war against them.
The authors of Black Against Empire rightfully take the war on the Panthers seriously and explore the impact the repression on the Party's growth and fall. Repression had the effect of publicizing the Black Panther Party in a way that drew supporters of a growing anti-establishment movement that made the connection between the US government's war in Vietnam and its war on Black America. This brought political and financial support to the Party's survival programs. The Panther’s organizational response to repression was action. They rallied the anti-war movement at home and built relationships with the anti-imperialist struggle abroad. At their height, the Black Panther Party had chapters in dozens of countries including Algeria, Japan, and numerous European nations.
But perhaps the most important contribution of Black Against Empire is its examination of the Black Panther Party's decline. Rather than mimic Nelson's racist attacks on Huey Newton, Black Against Empire offers an actual historical analysis that is useful for those seeking lessons from the lived struggle of the Panthers. The book concludes that a shift in social conditions withdrew public support and isolated its revolutionary approach. The Vietnam War eventually ended and so did the draft. Additionally, US imperialism renewed diplomatic relations with many of the Panther's international allies. And a Black misleadership class was created to isolate the Black Panther Party's politics in the Black community. Changing social conditions only exacerbated the impact of the splinters and divides created by the US government's war on the Panthers. These developments paved a difficult terrain from which to operate, forcing most chapters to close by the latter half of the
A sober analysis of the Black Panther Party is impossible without the exploration of the social conditions that fueled its growth and decline. It is even less possible to understand the true character of the Black Panther Party without knowledge of the historical context of their politics. Not only does the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution fail to meet both requirements, but also it simultaneously forwards the same racist, anticommunist filth that has dominated narratives of the Panthers since their decline. The film concludes that the Party's demise happened in part through Newton's connections to the "underground scene" and "former prisoners." This heinous demonization of the Black Panther Party falls in line with the entire film. Rather than acknowledge that working class Black Americans and prisoners were the foundation and life of the Party, the film paints the Black Panther Party as a childish group of gangsters who merely had some interesting moments.
Such a characterization could be nothing further from the truth. Black Against Empire and the numerous primary works created by former Panthers, some of whom remain political prisons to this day, provide ample evidence of the Black Panther Party's revolutionary legacy. One can read Black Against Empire, Huey Netwon's Autobiography, or Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power for a critical history and analysis on the formation of the Black Panther Party. Newton's doctoral dissertation War on the Panthers gives all the information one needs to know about the extent and significance of the US government's war on the Black Panther Party. And these just skim the surfaces of the works available for those interested in a true education on the Black Panther Party.
It is critical that we to study the history and politics of the Black Panther Party and derive lessons from their struggle. Political education is a revolutionary act. US imperialism cannot maintain its parasitic existence from sheer exploitation alone. The state, and all of its connections to the mass media, is the force from which the ruling class manages resistance to imperial rule. This includes the physical repression levied from the police, military, and the courts as well as the psychological repression experienced through schools and media institutions. The Black Panther Party has received massive levels of both forms of repression precisely because of the threat they posed to the state and the imperialist system as a whole. But you wouldn't know this from watching Stanley Nelson's documentary. It is essential for those who claim to be in the movement against capitalism and white supremacy to study and learn from those who came before us. We can start by putting down Nelson's documentary and picking up Black Against Empire and the work that inspired it.
Danny Haiphong is an organizer for Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) in Boston. He is also a regular contributor to Black Agenda Report. Danny can be reached at [emailprotected] and FIST can be reached at [emailprotected]m
This review was originally published on 9/2 and is now re-posted in conjunction with its Chicago opening.
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” opens with an old "Soul Train" clip of musical legends, The Chi-Lites. “For God’s sake,” the group sings, “why dontcha give more power to the people?” The Afro-clad quartet deliver their message of protest with a funky groove, a technique director Stanley Nelson adopts for this documentary. A river of protest soul music runs through the film, underscoring the visuals and influencing the smart editing choices by Aljernon Tunsil. He and Nelson traverse a structured arc as if designing great drama, presenting a slew of talking heads, film clips and rarely seen photographs. The film avoids hagiography, and in doing so, brings out the undeniable humanity of its subjects.
PBS strikes again with another fine documentary about the Black Power movement. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” would make a fine double feature with ’s “The Black Power Mixtape.” That film stunned me, leaving my mind racing with thoughts and ideas. In my woaknb.wz.sk review, I wrote that “Mixtape” took me “back to the days when I came to a mature understanding of the implications of being Black, male, and broke.” The same can be said for Nelson’s documentary, but “Vanguard” also added an unnerving sense of déjà vu. “If you live long enough,” an elder once told me, “life starts to feel like a merry-go-round.” Viewers will be struck by how eerily familiar and current the tactics depicted in this film are. In the grand scheme of oppression, fifty years is apparently long enough for history to repeat itself.
"Vanguard” reminded me that every generation has its media-fueled boogeyman, and it’s usually a brown one. The American majority of my parents’ generation was scared out of its wits by the Black Panther Party, an Oakland-based group fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans. Founded in by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers had a multi-point plan and a savvy command of the fine art of media manipulation. They presented a tough, military-style image that ran counter to the suits and Sunday-best attire of protest marches and sit-ins. They published a newspaper, like the Nation of Islam did, that detailed events and delivered news to the Black community. They provided a breakfast program for poor kids. And they used the Second Amendment to great effect by blatantly carrying loaded guns in a state that had an open carry law. Whenever confronted about this by the police, Newton would recite the California Penal Code that made his weapon legal.
Throughout the film, Nelson turns to members of the Black Panther Party to set the scene and tell their story. He begins in , where the tensions between police and the community In Oakland, California were at the highest levels in America. William Calhoun tells us that “there was absolutely no difference between the way the police treated us in Mississippi as they did in California.” As a result, the Black Panther Party started out as a self-defense organization, acting as a watchdog for police brutality. As Newton and others explain their methods to prevent undue violence during arrests, Nelson alternates between their words and those of Ray Gaul, an Oakland police officer describing the same methods. “It was pretty intimidating,” Gaul says.
Far more intimidating was the day-to-day existence of Blacks throughout the U.S. “Being Black in America meant that you didn’t walk down the street with the same sense of safety, and the same sense of privilege, as a White person,” says Jamal Joseph, another Panther interviewed here. This lack of safety and agency did not go away when the Panthers came on the scene. Instead, their show of power was seen as an enormous threat to the American way of life, a threat that caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. The former head of the F.B.I. became even more fearful once the Panthers acquired charismatic characters like Eldridge Cleaver and Fred Hampton, both of whom could work a crowd as well as Malcolm X and Dr. King.
Hoover is as big a character in this tale as Newton, Seale, Cleaver and Hampton. Nelson zeroes in on Hoover’s memos and his language, drawing a parallel between the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter with no extra effort. The similarities are striking. Hoover’s FBI was going after a group whose origins were in protesting against police brutality. He called the Panthers a racist terrorist group that wanted to destroy America, and a certain faction of the media promoted this message by playing up a manufactured scariness factor. The Panthers interrupted a press conference held by Governor Ronald Reagan, proving they can also play the media game to get politicians to listen. Hampton was illegally gunned down by the cops, leading to a successful civil lawsuit against the Chicago police department.
And in memos, Hoover was constantly fearful of a “Black messiah” who will bend the ear of non-Blacks and turn them toward the Black cause. That last one took me by surprise, but there’s a sly, subversive reason Nelson puts it out there. Remember the GOP’s favorite term for Obama during the election cycle? It was “the Messiah.”
Though it masterfully highlights the similarities between the “radical” organizations of yesteryear and today, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” makes an even better cautionary tale for today’s movement. After all, these institutions are run by people who are subject to the best and worst of human emotions, people who aren’t always right in their decision-making. This film shows how the Black Panther Party fractured between its two leaders Newton and Cleaver, and is unflinching in depicting what went wrong and how the FBI exploited it using informants and counterintelligence. “We thought the FBI wanted to kill us,” says Kathleen Cleaver. “I don’t think we understood how insidious their plan actually was.” The damaging elements of human nature turned out to be J. Edgar Hoover’s biggest ally. After a certain point, he just sat back and let the dissention he planted play out on its own.
The film also comments on whether the Panthers were victims of the image they projected and their underestimation of how powerful their enemies eventually were. “The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and youthful vigor and enthusiasm,” Calhoun tells us. “The great weakness of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and youthful vigor and enthusiasm. That can be dangerous, especially against the United States government.”
In contrast to the song of protest and forward motion that opens his film, Nelson closes with Gil Scott-Heron’s mournful “Winter in America.” Against the hopelessness and exhaustion of that classic soul song, each of the film’s talking heads recite from the Black Panther Party Platform and Program. None of the platform demands are outrageous nor unusual. All of them remain as relevant, necessary and timely as this documentary. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” deserves to be seen, studied and discussed.