Arriving around the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, and a resurgence of the protest against police brutality that significantly fueled it, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” offers a sturdy recap of the titular organization’s short, tumultuous history. Docu vet Stanley Nelson (“Freedom Summer,” “Jonestown,” “Wounded Knee”) doesn’t bring the era back to life quite as bracingly as something like the recent Swedish “Black Power Mixtape,” which had the advantages of using previously unseen footage and aiming for a more impressionistic, less historically definitive account. But “Vanguard’s” very straightforwardness also makes it perhaps preferable as an introduction to the subject, particularly in educational settings. PBS plans a limited theatrical release this fall, before an early-2016 broadcast premiere.
While in the early 1960s the focus on American racial relations was largely concentrated on the South, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifist protests made stubborn headway, the national discourse took a startling turn westward in 1966. That year, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party — named after a creature that will back away to a point when threatened, but attack when cornered — in Oakland, Calif., largely in response to the local African-American community’s persistent harassment by police. Fighting intimidation with intimidation, they took advantage of the state’s then-liberal gun laws (which Gov. Reagan then quickly sought to change) by appearing as an armed paramilitaristic unit wherever there were reports of unnecessary law-enforcement force. Their silent, watchful presence did indeed have a scarifying effect on local cops.
They also had an explosive impact on almost everyone else. While King’s humble, dignified, assimilationist approach had been successful to a point, the Panthers — looking terrifically cool in their Afros, leather jackets, shades and black turtlenecks — made African-American empowerment brash, sexy, radical and aggressive. The image and message hugely appealed to black youth, as well as many progressive white intellectuals, not to mention a burgeoning anti-war collegiate left consisting of all ethnicities. (The Panthers also played up these constituencies with a prescient media consciousness from the start.) But by the same token, the party’s “swagger” deeply alarmed many conservatives. It was one thing for middle-class white kids to toy with the notion of revolution; when angry, armed young blacks did, establishment forces could actually imagine the government being overthrown.
FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover pronounced the Panthers the single greatest threat to the nation’s security. Taking advantage of their rapid national growth with little consistent vision or oversight, he planted informants to sow dissent in individual chapters. “No-knock” Fed raids of Panther HQ, sometimes justified by dubious or planted evidence, resulted in shootouts that on several occasions seemed like deliberate assassination plots — most notably the 1969 Chicago bloodbath that saw an unarmed Fred Hampton (whom the paranoid Hoover feared would become a “Black Messiah”) shot in the head point-blank, in bed. Meanwhile, Newton spent nearly three years in prison on an eventually overturned manslaughter charge. Seale was likewise sent to prison, despite the outrage sparked by his courtroom treatment (at times shackled and muzzled on judge’s orders) while trying to defend himself. A third most-prominent Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, fled to Algeria. When Newton was freed, he and Cleaver sparred long-distance over the party’s direction, both growing increasingly irrational and isolationist.
All this internal strife — much of it undoubtedly seeded by covert FBI operations, as documents and testimonies here confirm — inevitably hastened the organization’s demise. The interpersonal conflicts, structural chaos and violent episodes ultimately overshadowed the Panthers’ many constructive, community-building achievements, including free breakfast for underprivileged children, medical clinics, rehab programs, sickle-cell anemia research, education advocacy and other “survival programs.” While facing chauvinism from some male leadership, women nonetheless claimed a degree of shared power in the Panthers that was highly unusual for any mixed-gender activist org at the time.
A large number of surviving former members (although Seale is notably, unexplainedly absent) recall this heady era in a quick-cut parade of talking-head interviews accompanying the expected wealth of archival footage. Much of the latter is familiar, as indeed is the whole saga — the Black Panthers have scarcely wanted for screen treatment before, both documentary and dramatized. An excellent soundtrack of vintage various-artist funk tracks is one aspect of the pro tech package that does capture the period’s live-wire political/cultural awakening at full force.