Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and it’s probably safe to say the party is as contentious today as it was in 1966. Were the Panthers revolutionaries or reformists? Insurrectionists, or social workers working within the system to improve the lot of African-Americans? Focused primarily on self-defense, or intent on overthrowing the government of the United States?
These questions are confronted from the off in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 2). The parable of the three blind men – and how each of their impressions of an elephant differ radically – is related by former Panther Ericka Huggins, who states “It wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was…complex.”
Directed by Stanley Nelson, The Black Panthers examines those complexities in depth, but begins with the basics. The party’s founding was the result of police brutality in Oakland — brutality the equal of any experienced by African Americans in Mississippi, though (perhaps) with fewer racial epithets.
In 1966, Panther founder Huey Newton was well aware that state gun laws permitted the carrying of firearms on public property. Using the law to their advantage, armed Panthers patrolled the streets to keep an eye on the Oakland Police Department, inadvertently creating a model for Cop Watch programs and 21st-century live-streamers.
Terrified of this threat to authority, California’s Republican governor Ronald Reagan made sure the laws were changed. There’s some great archival footage of politicians and journalists decrying “nuts with guns”, while Reagan himself is seen on May 21967 stating, “I don’t think loaded guns are a way to solve a problem”. Times – and circumstances – have certainly changed.
Days after Reagan’s speech, the Panthers released their famous 10-point program, signaling the Party’s arrival as more than just a protest movement. Soon the famous breakfast program was feeding hundreds of needy Oakland school kids, and Panther chapters were springing up in cities across the country.
Critical to the Party’s rapid growth were the personalities of bigwigs such as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. The powers that be took note, and did their best to sow discord and division within the Party through the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program.
Nelson’s film spends considerable time with COINTELPRO – especially focusing on its ability to place informants close to Panther leaders. Eventually police crackdowns, arrests, trials and general harassment led to schisms in the Party between the ‘establishment’ wing (represented by Newton) and the ‘revolutionary’ wing (represented by Eldridge Cleaver, safely exiled in Algeria).
While The Black Panthers doesn’t break a great deal of new ground (or settle any old arguments), it works well as a pocket history of the Party. Interviews with Party veterans such as Kathleen Cleaver, Felipe Luciano (who boldly states of Newton, “Was he insane? Fuck yeah!”), Elaine Brown, and Emory Douglas put the Panthers story into contemporary context, and as you’d expect there’s tons of fascinating archival footage. For those interested in Bay Area African-American history, it’s essential viewing.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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