The new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens with the renown story of the blind men touching an elephant, and the rest of the movie shows the party, like the proverbial elephant, to be as multifaceted and enigmatic as the people involved in it.
Narrated by many members of the Black Panther party, historians, police officers, FBI agents, and informants, the movie offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the history of the party since its inception, through Huey Newton’s incarceration, Eldridge Cleaver’s escape to Algeria, the infiltrations and struggles, the social programming, the collaboration with other social movements, the internal strife, and the last days. It is a mesmerizing, mature, and complex portrayal of a movement that embraced both revolution and reform; gender progress and traditional gender roles; inclusivity and exclusivity.
While the best part of all is the focus on individual narratives, the historical footage, mostly of Oakland in the 1960s, is stunning and extensive. The Panthers light up the screen with their distinctive appearance–the afros, the jackets, the berets, the weapons–and with their powerful display of black freedom and independence. The movie ingeniously moves from images of prominent Party members to interviews with the same members, many years later, in which they offer mature, reflective commentary about the explosive events. Many Panthers have remained on the public scene as activists; we recently covered Elaine Brown’s reentry farm project. Their honesty in describing their experiences in the movement–being watched by the police, conflicted about the aims of the movement, and, for the women–pushed out by Huey Newton’s later years, in which he was erratic and abusive–make the movie an unforgettable experience.
The film provoked me to think about two angles. The first is the prominence of the criminal process, and especially police-citizen interactions, with both the formation and the eventual destruction of the movement. One of the main points in the Black Panther platform was the fight against police brutality–and it is that very brutality that is evinced in police reactions to the party, starting with J. Edgar Hoover’s institutional plan to “neutralize” the party and prevent a “messiah” from rising (via, as is convincingly argued, the assassination of Fred Hampton. Moreover, the intense and oppressive use of the criminal process against the Panthers, especially the “New York 21” trials, makes the point the Panthers themselves wished to make. In one of the trials covered in the documentary, Bobby Seale (later to unsuccessfully run for Mayor of Oakland) is gagged and bound at his own trial, making the comparison between the old and new Jim Crow painfully evident.
The second angle is the provision of much-needed historical context for the current Black Lives Matter protest movement. First, it is always useful to inform young joiners of the protest that the problems between police and communities of color are not new and run deep. And second, I think the current movement would do well to learn from the Panthers’ willingness to reach a hand to other social movements and find common themes in different struggles for justice. It is possible to have a strong voice stemming from one’s identity AND to involve allies and partners beyond merely asking them to “shut up” or “check their privilege”. It is possible to highlight distinctive experiences AND appeal to a common ember of the human experience and to empathy. Sadly, the Panthers, like other social movements, were not immune to the left’s destructive tendency to eat its own. While their internal struggles, such as the strife between Newton and Cleaver, were initially exploited by the FBI, toward the end, all the FBI needed was to watch from the sidelines as the movement destroyed itself.