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Stanley Nelson’s ‘Black Panthers’ Couldn’t Be More Well Timed

Stanley Nelson's 'Black Panthers' Couldn't Be More Well Timed

Calling Stanley Nelson’s “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” well-timed suggests there have been periods when a documentary about African-Americans fighting systemic racism would have been less relevant, which is sadly not the case. But it’s also impossible to watch “Black Panthers,” which is now available on DVD and as a 99-cent iTunes rental and will be broadcast on PBS tonight, and not observe the similarities, and the crucial differences, between the Panthers and Black Lives Matter. (#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign will doubtless point up further contemporary resonances when she live-tweets the PBS broadcast.) Its theatrical release at the same time as “Straight Outta Compton” may have been savvy marketing, but airing on national TV a mere nine days after Beyoncé evoked the Black Panthers’ iconography in her Super Bowl halftime performance is the kind of synchronicity you can’t plan for — and the outcry over “Formation’s” use of backup dancers with blown-out Afros and raised fists demonstrates that, half a century after its founding, the Black Panther Party’s legacy is still a contentious one.

Nelson’s style is a straightforward, sometimes staid one; the movie was being likened to PBS product even before it was announced for broadcast. (Those looking for a documentary whose form is as radical as its content are directed to Göran Olsson’s “Concerning Violence”; a sense of how they were viewed at the time can be gleaned from Agnès Varda’s “Black Panthers,” part of Eclipse’s “Agnès Varda in California” box set. ) But considering the level of just plain confusion Beyoncé’s performance generated, it’s clear many if not most Americans need a primer on who the Panthers were, what they stood for, and how their legacy can both inspire present activists and help them avoid the Panthers’ mistakes.

Reviews of “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”

Katie Walsh, The Playlist

Nelson’s film is a comprehensive account of the history, trials, and tribulations of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, with interviews from key leaders and archival footage galore. These first person accounts and captured moments make this history feel immediate, intimate, and urgent. The diverse masses of people chanting along with “Free Huey!” and “I am a revolutionary” are inspiring, and it’s impossible not to compare these scenes with the scenes of protest we’ve seen throughout the past year. 

Noel Murray, A.V. Club

“Vanguard of the Revolution” takes a measured, objective perspective on the past, which sometimes works to its detriment. The film can come off as a little dispassionate, which doesn’t always convey the fire of its subject. And Nelson and his interviewees hold back from directly connecting the story of the Black Panthers to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, or to any other 21st century populist uprising, on the left or right—be it Occupy or the Tea Party. But at the same time, the sense of calm and reflectiveness makes the voices in “Vanguard of the Revolution” more persuasive. The aged activists who survived the heat of that time—the ones who joined the party just in time to watch it implode due to pressures both internal and external—have had decades to contemplate what went wrong, and what went right. They talk with justified pride about the free breakfast program for school kids, and the efforts made by visionaries like Fred Hampton to broker treaties between street gangs and forge alliances with white activist organizations, reframing the Panther principle as a unified underclass pushback against oppression. But they also admit that their ranks swelled whenever leaders like Eldridge Cleaver spoke of violent rebellion, and that it was hard to control some of the members who came to the party expressly for the opportunity to strike back against the pigs.

Odie Henderson, RogerEbert.com

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.

Stuart Klawans, The Nation

It’s useful — maybe even necessary — in movement politics to have both depth of purpose and theatrical appeal. But to portray the Panthers, Nelson has to encompass all this and much more: ­the quasi-delusional recklessness and disciplined community work, the ego-driven squabbling at the top and hopeful courage in the rank and file. It’s a near-impossible task—and yet he succeeds in creating a coherent picture of the messiest, most contentious radical group of a chaotic era, and arguably its most consequential. “We know the party we were in,” cautions onetime Panther leader Ericka Huggins at the start of the film, suggesting that Nelson is facing the proverbial problem of getting six blind men to describe an elephant. By the end of the film, he has very coolly put that elephant back into the room.

A.O. Scott, New York Times

 It’s easy enough, in hindsight, to romanticize the charisma of the Panthers and their leaders, or to criticize them for focusing on self-presentation and imagery rather than on more substantive issues. But what is clear from this sober yet electrifying film is that the power of the Panthers was rooted in their insistence — radical then, radical still — that black lives matter.

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice

The film, with its traditional mix of talking heads and vintage footage, does not try to hide the Panthers’ advocacy of violence. It’s honest about schisms in the chapters, especially between party members favoring armed insurrection and those who found community improvement a more satisfying and achievable goal than the overthrow of the U.S. government. Nelson shows us Eldridge Cleaver telling an audience, “I say that Ronald Reagan is a punk, a sissy, and a coward, and I challenge him to a duel.” Cleaver follows that up with a fantasy of beating the then-California governor to death with a marshmallow. That’s cute and all, but the comedy withers when Cleaver decides that the Panther method of policing the police, of eyeballing cops in armed silence, is no longer enough, and encourages Bobby Hutton and other young Panthers into ambushing Oakland officers.

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

You get that peculiar feeling of seeing echoes of the present in the grainy video footage of the past over and over again in “The Black Panthers.” While ‘60s historians and African-American studies scholars have written numerous works about the Panthers – Nelson calls upon several such experts, including Beverly Gage, Donna Murch and Yohuru Williams – in mainstream American cultural and political discourse they are presented either as bizarre and incomprehensible caricatures or swept under the carpet entirely. What we see in Nelson’s work is a history that is very much alive in the American present, and not just within BLM or the African-American community, but is hardly ever discussed. It’s a history that is exciting and frightening and repressed and distorted, and whose ripple effects have shaped the ideological landscape of the country we live in today.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

“The Black Panthers” also demonstrates, in infuriating detail, just how threatening the Panthers were to federal and local authorities alike, going into detail about J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO operation to infiltrate and eradicate them, by any means necessary. Nelson never interviews Seale or Angela Davis (who goes oddly unmentioned in the film). But he does make a convincing case that Fred Hampton, the party leader who was gunned down in his Chicago apartment in 1969, was precisely the kind of smart, politically savvy, personally charismatic leader that terrified Hoover and his minions. If “The Black Panthers” has been designed to leave viewers outraged and energized in equal measure, it succeeds with admirable style. It counts both as essential history and a primer in making sense of how we live now.

Oleg Ivanov, Slant

Given the timing of the film’s release and its emphasis on police violence against the African-American community, it’s clearly meant to be read as more than just a history of the Black Panthers. Nelson’s object lesson seems to be that the Panthers lost their way when they allowed violent resistance to trump less glamorous, but ultimately more useful, efforts to provide social services to local African-American communities. Like other recent documentaries about ’60s firebrands like Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer, Vanguard of the Revolution both feeds off of and perpetuates nostalgia for a time when the nation seemed more politically conscious and therefore more capable of creating lasting social change. That such change proved short-lived and reversible might ultimately be the film’s most important lesson.

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