'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A fine primer that admires the movement more than its leaders.

Stanley Nelson chronicles the short life of an iconic organization.

A strong if only occasionally transporting biography of a movement that terrified the establishment in its day, Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution speaks to many former members of the Black Panther Party about what its breed of revolutionary activism felt like at the time. Joining some other recent histories about black Americans fighting powers that are too rarely held accountable to them, the film continues a discussion whose present-day relevance is painfully, increasingly obvious. Straighter in its attitude than The Black Power Mixtape and covering much more ground than Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, it does so in a way that will be an easy sell on public TV, where it's likely to find most of its initial audience before a long and useful life on video.

Beginning in the group's birthplace of Oakland, California, the doc points out how the persecution of the civil rights era had a different flavor in coastal cities than in the South. Here, we're told, thuggish police "might not have called you n—r, but they treated you the same." We're introduced to the young Huey P. Newton, who realized that it was legal to carry loaded guns in public and understood that doing so in the vicinity of police interacting with Oakland's black population would draw more attention to racial justice issues than a million printed fliers. He and Bobby Seale organized the party, which began with a focus on militancy but soon launched major charitable programs, including a famous free-breakfast effort that fed children 20,000 meals a week.

Drama was never in short supply with the Panthers, and Newton's arrest early in their existence provided a rallying cry that was (like their fondness for calling police "pigs") taken up by white college students and other left-leaning groups. While he shows the power of the "Free Huey" slogan, Nelson isn't eager to investigate it; he tells us almost nothing about the incident that led to Newton's imprisonment (he was accused of killing a policeman), nor does he give us any way of guessing whether it was just or unjust.

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The omission of such significant details is puzzling given that Nelson soon enough proves willing to show the group's leaders in an unfavorable light. We watch in some detail as their intellectual star, Eldridge Cleaver, goes off the deep end following an armed standoff, fleeing to Algeria and eventually fracturing the party. And near the end, we briefly hear of Newton's descent into drugs and erratic, criminal behavior. It's tempting to conclude that the film is willing to be frank about the problems party figures caused themselves and each other, but the doc wants few shades of gray when it comes to antagonism between Panthers and the police.

The film's most involving bit of storytelling comes when the villainy of law enforcement is in no doubt. After detailing J. Edgar Hoover's fervor to destroy the group with COINTELPRO and dirty tricks, it introduces the tremendously charismatic Fred Hampton, who in 1969 seemed poised to emerge as the kind of "black messiah" Hoover feared. Just as he was starting to build inspiring alliances between Panthers and activists in Latino and poor white communities, Hampton was killed in an FBI-engineered police raid that begs to be called a political assassination.

Straight history is not the whole point here, as Nelson enthusiastically conjures a sense of what it felt like to be a Panther and to be a young black person inspired by them. Alongside historians, we hear from many surviving party members, including Jamal Joseph, Kathleen Cleaver, and William Calhoun. (The absence of Seale, the most famous surviving Panther, is not explained.) Adding a bounty of excellent archival photographs and some good political soul on the soundtrack, the movie makes unnecessary one member's happy recollection that "we had a swagger."

Production company: Firelight Media

Director: Stanley Nelson

Producer: Laurens Grant

Directors of photography: Antonio Rossi, Rick Butler

Editor: Aljernon Tunsil

Music: Tom Phillips

No rating, 114 minutes

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