All Power to the People
AFS Doc Nights brings out the Black Panthers
"I felt absolutely free. I was a free negro. I was making up my own rules. You couldn't get in, I couldn't get out. But in my space, I was the king," says former Panther Wayne Pharr. The emotion recalled from an epic gun battle with an LAPD SWAT team hammers home the overarching message found in Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a comprehensive and relatively balanced capsule illustrating the still-influential group's history.
"I set out to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Party, a little known history that hadn't been told in its entirety. In particular, I wanted to offer a unique and engaging opportunity to examine a very complex moment in time that challenges the cold, oversimplified narrative," explains Nelson.
Created in Oakland and led by charismatic co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the group preached self-love, self-defense, and self-reliance, reaching the masses with free breakfast programs, clinics, and police patrolling. They would legitimize and solidify the movement through a 10-point agenda and intelligent media use, with aid of the "leather jacket and beret" image still associated with the Party.
Reasons for the demise of the Panthers are shown – some clearly detailed in various degrees, others implied – with a painful, scab-peeling nuance. Nelson paints a sobering narrative which greatly contrasts the cult conservation found in Mario Van Peebles' 1995 drama Panther – a dogmatic disservice, that eschewed all Panther-caused faulting, pinning all responsibility on (alleged, but entirely plausible) collusion between government agencies and the mafia to flood the inner city with drugs.
The interviews also bring deep structural issues forming in the dark to light, including Newton's seemingly eternal imprisonment. In cutting hindsight, Nelson covers questionable choices made following Martin Luther King's assassination. Those choices included Eldridge Cleaver's ill-advised escalation in rhetoric, which led, in part, to the death of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton.
The documentary utilizes data astutely – in the form of released memos – highlighting the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's unofficial position as the slave patrolman emeritus, using the government's Concertina-wired branches to wrap himself around the softer elements of the Panthers' movement. In the director's strongest moment, he moves the prism onto Hoover's most interesting tactic: the FBI's coercion of local law enforcement, who in appeasement, lined officers up (including those interviewed) as enthusiastic rubes in lockstep with Hoover's wishes. "I think that J. Edgar Hoover was a representative of the state, but he was also kind of working on his own because he had kind of carte blanche to do what he wanted to."
Interviews with police officers and FBI agents provide color and depth, confirming how the COINTELPRO program pushed and pulled the Party into paranoia and created unrest from within – or worse, death. An informant central to the turmoil, William O'Neal, positioned himself as personal bodyguard to the soon-killed Fred Hampton, who Hoover saw as the magnetic messiah figure he'd sought to abort.
Among the (likely unintentional) implied causes posed is the mental volatility of both Newton and Cleaver. Post-prison, Newton would descend into sabotage, converting his faction into something contrary to the original ideals. Cleaver – who wrote the influential Soul on Ice, a memoir and collection of essays detailing inner-city life and his stint as an acknowledged serial rapist – would eventually become a born-again Christian and Reagan conservative, denouncing his activist past. To this end, and at a wider view, the film leaves clues to whether, with anecdotal reference to other movements worldwide, some instability could be seen as a prerequisite for true revolutionaries (in tandem with the equally manic authority figures stopping them.)
"It is essential to me as a filmmaker to try and give the viewer a sense of what it has meant to be black in America and consider this within our contemporary context. The legacy of the Black Panther Party had a lasting impact on the way black people think and see ourselves, and it is important that we look at and understand that."
Austin Film Society Doc Nights: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution screens Wednesday, Sept. 30, 7:30pm at the Marchesa Hall and Theatre. For tickets, visit www.austinfilm.org.