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-’60s black power movement to an audience that wasn’t even born then.
FiIm is motivated by a desire to nail the FBI for its relentless efforts to destabilize and 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), a young man in his early 20s who witnesses the 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. Judge ends up as the classic man in the middle.
Screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles, whose incendiary 1971 feature Sweet Sweetback’s Song 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 the case against the FBI comes off as very strong indeed.
While the filmmakers go after the authorities with claws bared, they pull them in all the way where the Panthers are concerned. The approach amounts to a whitewash.
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. Frequent shifting between color and black-and-white feels arbitrary.