It’s almost too obvious to call Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution” timely. Yes, it’s timely because we still have to assert that #BlackLivesMatter nearly 50 years after the Panthers declared “black is beautiful.” It’s timely because of the deep soul searching over police brutality, and gun rights and who gets to have them, and because the Panthers recently showed up at a protest in Ferguson sporting rifles like it was 1967. It’s timely, because, as this documentary will make you question, what has truly changed in those 50 years?
READ MORE: Watch This Exclusive Clip From ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution’
It’s also timely with N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” currently trouncing all comers at the box office, a true August phenomenon. It’s not explicitly illustrated in Nelson’s film, as it ends with the dissolution of the party’s first incarnation, but a direct line can be drawn from the disintegration of the Panthers to the gang lifestyle that sprouted up in the void of social action-based organizations for youth of color, with conditions of police harassment and poverty remaining the same. Without the Panthers, there would be no “Straight Outta Compton.”
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.
One thing the Panthers knew instantly was the power of an image, and in the burgeoning television environment of the 1960s, their unabashed swag was media catnip. You can’t deny the ultimate coolness of the Panthers, decked out in shades, leather, and Afros, but the remarkable thing was that they harnessed this hipness towards social action like free breakfast programs for school children, and articulating goals for housing, welfare, and other needs.
This socially conscious side of the party didn’t always jibe with the revolutionary goals of all involved, and Nelson’s film does not shy away from the fact that clashing egos and differing goals led to many of its problems. But those issues pale in comparison to the outright destruction of the party, both overt and covert, at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The film is worth seeing just for the shocking reminder that the police were used as pawns by the FBI to entrap, incarcerate, and emotionally destroy the individuals in the party, with the ugliest event the outright assassination of Fred Hampton, a rising star.
The archival footage showing the blood-soaked mattress where he was ambushed and murdered while asleep at home is sickening and damning. Coupled with text from the FBI’s own COINTELPRO policy to eliminate any black “Messiah” figures, the film allows the FBI to hang themselves with their own rope. Nelson doesn’t overplay the drama of these moments, allowing the facts speak for themselves.
It’s clear that the Panther legacy lives on, and Nelson’s film is a necessary primer for understanding the party — in it’s own words. Armed black men in leather are going to cause a racist media hysteria, so learning about the goals, victories, and inner strife from those who were there is absolutely necessary for understanding what conditions led to the party’s creation, and how it flourished in the powder keg of the late 1960s. Half a century later, the Panther movement could find a renaissance in a situation that seems not all that different. Things change, but in many ways they stay the same, and you’ll wish the film just didn’t have to be so timely. [A-]