Film Review: 'The Black Panthers'

★★★☆☆
"The strength of the Black Panther Party was its youth, its idealism and its enthusiasm," says an aging member towards the close of Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015). "The weakness of the Black Panther Party was its youth, its idealism and its enthusiasm." This tragic see-saw, which sees revolutionary enthusiasm digging the grave of revolution, is the subject of Stanley Nelson's angry, sorrowful, yet invigorating and timely history of the movement which first caught fire in Oakland, California in the 1960s.

Started initially as a response to police brutality, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party to patrol their neighbourhoods and specifically trail the police to make sure they weren't beating up black men. Making use of the liberal gun laws, the Panthers were bristling with firearms and would confront the law with an implied threat that caught the enforcers of the law by surprise. Such incendiary activism stood in stark contrast to, as well as being partly inspired by, the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. With their afros, their 'black is beautiful' sexiness, their funk, their swagger, their black leather coats, berets and shades, they were catnip to the media and a spiky injection of dangerous and violent insurrection to excite white liberals and terrify the mainstream. Broadening out as a political party and capturing first national and then international attention, the Panthers published a ten point political programme which identified capitalism as much as racism as their enemy and seeking to address inequalities in wealth, healthcare provision and education.

This went further than rhetoric and led to the Panthers working within the community, providing free breakfasts for children on school days, free clinics and drop in centres as well as publishing a newspaper to further disseminate their ideas. In Eldridge Cleaver, the author of Soul on Ice, they had their first literary superstar. When leader Huey Newton was arrested after a shoot out with the police that left an officer dead, Cleaver – a brilliant if highly unstable thinker – became a de-facto spokesperson and began to lead the Panthers into a yet more confrontational direction. The police and specifically the FBI were not idly standing by, however, and J. Edgar Hoover personally targeted the Panthers at every opportunity, setting up the covert Cointelpro program to encourage infiltration, frame operations and suggest assassination to prevent a 'black messiah' from rising up to lead the movement.

The police were sometimes used as unwitting, but willing tools to take out key figures in 'no knock' raids which seemed specifically designed to provoke fire fights, the most notorious of which saw the targeted murder in 1969 of Fred Hampton in Chicago, a leader who had dared to link the Panthers to politically active Latino groups and even a group of white Appalachian Hillbillies protesting the poor conditions they lived under. The unrestrained weight of the state against them, the Party eventually began to implode as an exiled Cleaver bickered with the newly freed and rapidly psychotic Newton. Nelson's film is both the beneficiary of and a corrective to the iconic status of the Panthers which the movement and the mainstream media colluded to produce. Insiders speak of gun battles, demonstrations and hope; sacrifice and paranoia. And the context of young black men being beaten and killed on the street by an out of control police force is sadly all too recognisable. We also hear from the police officers who had to contend with them and who saw the Panthers as nothing more than terrorists.

Despite their inclusion, Nelson's film makes no pretence of balance and sometimes the elisions and omissions become too glaring. Although the women were the powerhouse behind the movement, it fails to note that one of Cleaver's most famous assertions (later recanted) was that raping a white woman should be considered a revolutionary act. Whereas the extra-judicial murder of Hampton is given a forensic examination to show it for what it was, Newton's killing of the police officer is glossed over and his freeing on what amounted to a technicality is seen as a political victory, though he would later be implicated in more murders which are also not mentioned. Of the leadership, only Bobby Seale, author of the classic insider account, Seize the Day, would stay the course and works today as a community activist. Nowadays the Black Panthers loom large only in the minds of Fox News contributors, but perhaps Stanley Nelson's movie can return them once more, if not to the vanguard, at least into the consciousness of a nation which is once more watching images of black men being gunned down in the street.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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