Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Starring Kadeem Hardison, Bokeem Woodbine, Joe Don Baker, Marcus Chong, Tyrin Turner, Dick Gregory, M. Emmett Walsh, James Legros. (1995)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 5, 1995
After years of floating around Hollywood, the story of the Black Panther Party has finally made it to the screen, and though some critics have already begun to point out the film's occasional historical inaccuracies, the Van Peebles' (son Mario directed and father Melvin scripted; both co-produced) depiction of the nascent African-American political party-cum-self-empowerment movement is a stirring -- if readily dramatized -- history lesson for the Nineties. Ostensibly the tale of Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and their revolutionary call-to-arms, Panther uses Kadeem Hardison's fictional character, Judge, as the eyes through which the party is seen. Freshly back from a tour of Vietnam, Judge returns to Oakland to find his hometown changed: The police seem to be out of control in their routine persecution of the black neighborhoods, and young upstarts Seale and Newton have taken it on themselves to form the Panthers as a means of policing the police. On top of (legally) arming themselves (and it's a bit of a surprise to realize that once upon a time guns were so hard to come by in the urban jungle), they also feed the homeless, educate people within the ghetto, and generally strive to make life better for all concerned. The Panthers were, of course, rewarded with ever-increasing harassment from Hoover's COINTELPRO, bloodshed, and ostracism from some elements of their own community, chief among them the drug dealers and thugs who preferred life without the Panthers' community policing. When Judge is contacted by the FBI and forced into becoming a government stoolie (to a degree -- he has the consent of both Newton and Seale, who find this a favorable way to feed the feds misinformation), he finds himself caught between his love of the Panther party and a very legitimate fear for his life. The performances here are almost all first-rate, with Chong's Newton capturing much of the charismatic personality of the party leader and comedian/activist Dick Gregory doing a wonderful turn as local Reverend Slocum. Peebles uses old black-and-white news footage of the party to add an almost documentary feel to parts of the film, but the story frequently has a noticeable (and cloying) “Hollywood” feel to it; there's gloss on the ghetto and Hoover at times seems more menacing than Darth Vader. Despite these filmic flaws, Panther manages to kick start the mythic elements of the very real Black Panther Party. It's about time.