'The Black Panthers

Vanguard of a Revolution': Made for Television

by Chris Barsanti

15 February 2016

Today, as US political campaigns take on communities of color -- whether trying to win or suppress their votes -- we might remember a time when Black Lives were not on TV.

Today, as US political campaigns take on communities of color—whether trying to win or suppress their votes—we might remember a time when Black Lives were not on TV. This changed with the Black Panthers. Indeed, as The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution observes, the Panthers were a spectacle made for television. They knew it, played to it, and built on it.

Premiering as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series on 16 February, Stanley Nelson’s documentary begins in a riotous flutter of revolutionary flash, set to a pulsating soul power soundtrack circa 1966. An infuriated knot of activists in Oakland who initially called themselves The Vanguard, sick and tired of being treated as punching bags and shooting targets by the local cops, organized their own watchdog units to follow the police and keep them from mistreating anybody. Realizing that California state law allowed them to carry guns in public, they did just that, and set off a firestorm. They could protest all they wanted that they were simply following their constitutional rights, but all the police and politicians saw was the threat of open revolt.

The film goes on to track the group’s brilliant political theater, designed to highlight the absurdity of laws against open carry suddenly being passed once black people had the temerity to follow it. The media images of these seemingly staunch militants refusing to be cowed by the establishment, and being very clear about being “ready to throw down” if the cops got out line, shocked a white establishment already nervous about the speed with which the civil rights movement had notched up victories.

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