[Almost all bourgeois media depictions of the Black Panthers have been highly sensationalized, racist, and scarified, designed for bewildered viewers to dismiss. Some have had a more sympathetic, even empathetic, edge, though usually told in terms that say, “that’s in the past, it won’t happen again.” But this review connects this new film with its relevance today in a society riveted and outraged by the everyday, country-wide, routine police killings of blacks. — Frontlines ed.]
by DeWayne Wickham, USA Today, February 17, 2015
New documentary tells another story of revolutionary group than the one we’ve been told.
NEW YORK — The Black Panther Party is back.
Not the one-dimensional, gun-toting, leather-jacket-wearing caricature that dominated news coverage of the black revolutionary organization during its heyday in the 1960s.
And I’m not talking about the Black Panther Party that was both the target and creation of COINTELPRO, the secret FBI counter-intelligence operation that sought to “neutralize” the Panthers by virtually any means necessary.
This most recent incarnation of the Black Panther Party emerged Friday night at the opening of Documentary Fortnight 2015, the Museum of Modern Arts’ annual showcase of documentaries.
The movie, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is the latest work of Stanley Nelson, himself something of a revolutionary. Nelson’s films — eight of which have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival — probe the soft underbelly of America’s lingering race problem. From his examination of the Jonestown massacre, the murder of Emmett Till and the 1964 Mississippi voter registration drive, Nelson’s works shine a light into the dark places that few other filmmakers venture.
In his latest work, Nelson doesn’t rewrite history so much as he reveals a parallel story of a Black Panther Party that was more complex — and well-intended — than was portrayed during the group’s tumultuous history. In 1969, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover branded the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Nelson’s documentary tells the story of Hoover’s animus for the Black Panthers — and the organization’s bloody conflicts with law enforcement. Many of the clashes were precipitated by the FBI. Of the 295 actions taken by the FBI to “disrupt” black nationalist groups under COINTELPRO, 233 targeted the Black Panthers, a U.S. Senate committee reported in 1976.
“I felt the story of the Panthers hadn’t really been told,” Nelson said shortly after the screening ended. “I think it was important in this film to find new things.”
And he did. The documentary gives more than a fleeting glimpse of the role played by black women in the Black Panther Party. By the end of the 1960s, it reveals, a majority of the group’s members were women. Among others, it gives voice to Kathleen Cleaver, the influential wife of Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ minister of information, and to Elaine Brown, who replaced him in that job.
But it is the relevance of Nelson’s documentary to the recent spate of run-ins between blacks and cops that makes his theatrical resurrection of the Black Panther Party a compelling bit of filmmaking. In one scene, actor Marlon Brando decries the police shooting of a young member of the organization. “That could have been my son lying there,” Brando said, sounding eerily similar to what President Obama said on the heels of the killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman and wannabe policeman. “You know, when (Martin) was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said in July 2013.
Nelson’s film tells us about the Black Panthers’ efforts to address some of the most daunting social problems in black communities around the country. At the height of its breakfast program, the group served 20,000 meals a week to poor children, it operated free health clinics and free food giveaway programs in inner city neighborhoods.
Of course, Nelson’s film is not the whole truth of the Black Panther Party. But it is a large part of what has gone missing in the telling of its story. “Until the lions have their own historians,” the African proverb goes, “the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Nelson is this nation’s foremost storyteller of the black experience in America. He speaks for the lions.
DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.