All Power to the People!: The Black Panther Party and Beyond

A potent indictment, "All Power to the People!" seeks both to recap the Black Panther Party's oft-distorted history and to expose apparent governmental plots that hastened its demise (ditto that of other late-'60s/early-'70s U.S. "extremist" groups).

A potent indictment, “All Power to the People!” seeks both to recap the Black Panther Party’s oft-distorted history and to expose apparent governmental plots that hastened its demise (ditto that of other late-’60s/early-’70s U.S. “extremist” groups). Lively docu package errs only in the realm of overreaching — the events and accusations covered in whirlwind style here might have been more searingly explored at greater length. Pic, which has appeared in smaller U.S. fests and short-run commercial dates, should earn further such exposure internationally. Home-turf broadcast and wider theatrical play may hinge on residual skittishness about its still-controversial subject.

Helmer Lee Lew-Lee starts by stating that his employment as a TV cameraman during the 1992 L.A. riots awakened a personal need to know how U.S. racial relations came to such a sorry pass. He then segues into a rapid-fire montage covering slavery days through mid-’60s civil rights activism. The consecutive assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are viewed as part of a concerted plan to undermine the self-empowerment of the racial underclass.

Founded in 1967 in Oakland, Calif., the Panthers constructed a 10-point “platform” calling for improved housing, education and nutrition. But their outspoken stance against local police as a racist political force bent on “terrorizing” blacks proved more immediately incendiary for the media, as did their image of militarized, legally gun-toting community “self-defense” squadrons.

In short form, the Panthers became national celebrities — and targets. While evidence is hastily laid out (fast-scanned government documents, bite-size interview segs), suggestion carries strongly that BPP leadership ranks were infiltrated, divided, demoralized, framed, even killed and addicted to drugs by canny FBI, CIA and local police forces. Nixon and Hoover, among others, are heavily incriminated here.

Lew-Lee traces this saga in engrossing style, deploying voluminous, often rare archival film and vid footage in quick cuts as static-separated “channel-surfing.” At the same time, his fast pace sometimes assumes prior viewer knowledge of events, and leaves heady accusations against U.S. government forces advanced with just fleeting onscreen “proof.”

Pic gets into worse trouble when it jumps from Panther history to related digressions (notably a long one into early-’70s American Indian “Red Power” activism and suppression) that are potent but seem tacked on. Further addenda include questions about the Reagan Era’s Cold War-esque intelligence ploys; the current threat to public privacy that various digital new technologies suggest; and why an expensive, border-protective War Against Drugs has met so little success.

Provocative, yes, but they suffer from a sense of too many important themes fleetingly explored. A smaller thematic focus — or longer running time — might have served “All Power” better in the long run. Ultimately, film’s semi-awkward structure does harm to its larger audience potential, if not to its credence for a limited one.

Principal interviewees include several erstwhile BPP members, former FBI Special Agent W. Swearingen, ex-CIA officer Philip Agee, journalists Gordon Parks (a subsequent filmmaker) and Sarah McClendon, plus various radical-politicking survivors. Talking-head bits seldom get in the way of exciting, well-chosen archival material. Vid-to-16mm tech package is resourcefully pacey and slick, although helmer Lew-Lee’s striking color time-lapse cityscapes get a bit redundant after a while as entr’actes.

All Power to the People!: The Black Panther Party and Beyond

  • Production: An Electronic News Group production in association with ZDF. Produced by Lee Lew-Lee. Co-producers, Kristin Bell, Nico Panigutti.
  • Crew: Produced, directed by Lee Lew-Lee. Camera (color/B&W, video-to-16mm), Lew-Lee; editor, Ruby Yang; additional editing, Karen Segal, Martha Pike; music supervisor, Kraig Pullen Kilby; sound, Mitch Dorf.
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