Panther," a fictionalized telling of some incidents in the life of the Black Panthers, represents a gloss on history for the ennobling benefit of its protagonists. Simplified when it should be complex and sanitized when moral ambiguity doesn't suit its ideological agenda, this Van Peebles father-and-son collaboration seems tailored to glorify the positive aspirations of the late '60 s black power movement to an audience that wasn't even born then. As such, it has a built-in audience among black youth, with a certain crossover potential among baby boomers curious to see a depiction of their student years from a different perspective.
Panther,” a fictionalized telling of some incidents in the life of the Black Panthers, represents a gloss on history for the ennobling benefit of its protagonists. Simplified when it should be complex and sanitized when moral ambiguity doesn’t suit its ideological agenda, this Van Peebles father-and-son collaboration seems tailored to glorify the positive aspirations of the late ’60 s black power movement to an audience that wasn’t even born then. As such, it has a built-in audience among black youth, with a certain crossover potential among baby boomers curious to see a depiction of their student years from a different perspective.
Given the volatile subject matter of militant blacks who defied the police and government and soon became significant figures in the overall counterculture of the era, a film about them could hardly help but be lively, provocative, dramatic and prone to spark disagreement about how personalities and events are portrayed. Certainly, figures who were there and involved in the fractious events of the time will feel compelled to sound off about how the film does, and does not, accurately reflect the passions and politics depicted, and pic could benefit from some off-entertainment page coverage in papers and magazines.
Specifically, film is motivated by a desire to nail the FBI for its relentless efforts to destroy the Panthers, a campaign driven by J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with them and his labeling of the group as Public Enemy No. 1 . To this end, the tale’s central character is the fictional one of Judge (Kadeem Hardison), who witnesses the unfairness and police oppression of blacks on the streets of Oakland and begins siding with firebrands such as his friend Tyrone (Bokeem Woodbine), Huey Newton (Marcus Chong) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance).
But Judge, a reasonable fellow, is tagged early on by local authorities as a potential spy, someone they can squeeze for help in their attempt to infiltrate the group. So Judge ends up as the classic man in the middle, someone through whom the audience presumably can reasonably view the more extreme behavior of the activists on both sides.
As the Panthers begin organizing in the East Bay, pic displays a promising sense of humor, especially as members are seen generating funds by selling Mao’s Little Red Book, the contents of which they don’t comprehend, to all-too-eager white college kids. As the early Panthers begin assuming military discipline, strutting about with guns and enjoying how it feels to be so intimidating, film slyly ascribes motives to them that are half-serious and half in the realm of juvenile play-acting.
But things inevitably become heavier when the Panthers win a face-off with police, invade the California State Legislature with rifles and join up with the hippies in a giant anti-war rally in 1967.
Shortly thereafter, Newton is jailed after a shoot-out with police, as is Eldridge Cleaver some months later, and the splintering of the party is under way.
Screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles, whose incendiary 1971 feature “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was often praised by Huey Newton and established him as the godfather of black American cinema, has his hands full cramming all the necessary historical incidents into the two-hour drama. But he also spends considerable time fabricating Judge’s eventual role as a double agent between the FBI and Panthers, with point man Brimmer (Joe Don Baker) regularly collaring the young man to demand some goods against the upstart organization. Case against the FBI comes off as very strong indeed, but it’s undercut somewhat at the end with the tacit suggestion that the entire drug problem in the United States is due to the FBI’s decision to flood the ghetto with heroin to “neutralize” the black power movement.
While Melvin and his director son Mario Van Peebles go after the authorities with claws bared, they pull them in all the way where the Panthers are concerned. Subsequent histories and literature on the movement have revealed fascinating details of personal friction, mixed motives and illegal activities among party leadership. But the screenwriter has said that the film is “about a forest more than a tree,” and the approach amounts to a whitewash, so to speak, of the Panthers. It makes it less interesting than it might have been as drama, but no doubt more palatable as hero worship and role-model sculpting.
Dealing with the formidable logistics of a huge cast, many locations and a sprawling time frame, director Van Peebles keeps things moving vigorously for more than two hours but still hasn’t learned much about shaping his drama and modulating mood and feel. Although p.o.v. is utterly clear, every scene is pitched at virtually the same high level, which eventually creates some numbness and exhaustion. At least, it provides a starting point for further discussion.
Acting varies, with Chong emerging most charismatically as Newton and Vance coming off as more subdued as Seale. Hardison works up sympathy for his man between, and Woodbine makes a strong impression as one of the more volatile Panthers. Pic is peppered with brief cameos, including one by Melvin Van Peebles as a jail inmate. Physically, at least, Mario Van Peebles is less than ideally cast as Stokely Carmichael.
Technically, pic is solid, with the ’60s decently evoked. Frequent shifting between color and black-and-white feels arbitrary.