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Review: In Engrossing, Essential ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,’ Past Is Prologue

Review: In Engrossing, Essential 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,' Past Is Prologue

In the streets of Oakland, Calif., spontaneous political
action against police brutality bursts forth from the black population’s bottomless
well of grief. The members of the movement are young, media-savvy, and
committed to transformational change — first in the criminal justice system and
then in the realms of education, housing, and employment. Though they
eventually count certain factions of the left as allies, much of the white
establishment bristles at the challenge to their privilege; the right condemns
the disappearance of “law and order,” and the mechanisms of
oppression whir to life. The year is 1966, and the organization in question is known
as The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

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In Stanley Nelson’s indispensable documentary “The
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” the struggle continues.
Tacitly, at least, the film draws a dense web of connections: between the
Panthers and Black Lives Matter, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan and today’s
GOP, Oakland and Ferguson, Mo. If my brief gloss of the Panthers’ political
program sounds familiar, that is by design. For Nelson the past is prologue,
and “The Black Panthers” is at once a celebration of, and an elegy
for, a certain strain of American anti-capitalism and anti-racism that only
now, more than four decades later, seems to be coming back into fashion. If you
want to understand the politics of the present, “The Black Panthers”
is essential viewing.

Crafted from archival footage and audio recordings, still
photographs, and interviews with Party members and leading scholars, the film
is not, at first glance, as radical as its subject. But as it proceeds, the
fillips of aesthetic innovation bubble and froth until the film’s sense of
urgency, of immediacy, is impossible to ignore. The animated parable of the
opening minutes segues into Emory Douglas’ expressive illustrations of black
life in the 1960s, published in the Panthers’ newspaper; the sounds of gunfire
intrude upon party members describing a standoff with the LAPD. As a result,
though “The Black Panthers” addresses the movement’s legacy only
obliquely — Nelson understands that we’re capable of connecting the dots — it’s
no stiff textbook synopsis. This is living history.   

It’s also, perhaps most importantly, an intervention in the
narrative that has grown up around the Panthers since the party’s fragmentation
and disintegration in the 1970s, following a split between handsome,
charismatic co-founder Huey Newton and Soul on Ice author Eldrige Cleaver. Far
from the militant black nationalists of the popular imagination, the Panthers
envisioned and established a full complement of social programs, including a
pioneering breakfast initiative for children that presaged the free and
reduced-price meals now widespread in schools serving the working poor. As
Newton explains, even the party’s name is more peaceful than conservative
observers contend. “We use the black panther as our symbol… because the
panther doesn’t strike [just] anyone,” he says in one clip, from 1966.
“He’ll tell you to back up, but if the aggressor continues, he’ll strike

Where the Panthers differed from the churchgoing mainstream
of the Civil Rights movement, Nelson suggests, was a function of style as much
as substance. “We had swagger,” one member says, amid a montage of
Panthers wearing natural hair, black leather jackets, and unruffled
expressions. “We stood out.” Even their decision to carry weapons
openly, which seems inconceivable today, takes on new meaning when you consider
that armed whites recently occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon for 41
days: to hear Ronald Reagan condemn the tactic, while Newton invokes the Second
Amendment to justify it, is to remember that the status quo is never permanent.

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If “The Black Panthers” isn’t unimpeachable —
questions of sexism in the movement are dealt with rather by rote, and the
unflinching focus on the movement from the inside-out allows for little in the
way of historical context — it’s nonetheless a vital reconsideration of a
political moment whose reverberations can be felt today. Indeed, as the
Panthers face surveillance, wrongful arrest, and even political assassination
at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and urban police forces nationwide, the
film emerges as a cautionary tale, a warning that any revolution is bound to
face staunch opposition from the powers that be.

Still, as member Wayne Pharr says, relating details from the
aforementioned confrontation with the LAPD, freedom is found in the struggle
itself as much as its eventual outcome. “I was a free Negro,” he
remarks. “I was making my own rules. You couldn’t get in, I couldn’t get
out. But in my space, I was the king. In that little space I had, I was the

“The Black
Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” airs tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check
you local listings.

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