The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution Gives a Lesser Known History
Stanley Nelson’s studious history shows that even without the law enforcement campaign of disinformation, infiltration, and assassination, the Black Panthers would have imploded on their own.
At some point, revolutionaries have to decide what else they want to be. Too often, they can’t. That’s why so many successful insurrections end up emulating the very same oppressive regimes they overthrow: fighters are often miserably bad peacemakers. That’s why Che Guevara ran off to die stupidly in Bolivia rather than figure out sugar cane production back in Cuba.
That tension between tearing down and building up lies at the core of Stanley Nelson’s smart, thoughtful The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, but is never brought out into the open and dealt with. It’s understandable: the history of the Panthers is one big melodrama, and there are a lot of stories to tell.
The Panthers were a spectacle made for television. They knew it, played to it, and built on it. Nelson’s film starts 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, organizee 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 sight of ranks of black men toting rifles and shotguns and wearing uniforms of black berets, black leather jackets, shades, and heavy scowls, marching into the State Capitol set off a panic, as it was meant to do. Displaying a gimcrack militarism and devastatingly cool fashion sense, the Panthers were 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” (as one Panther puts it) 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.
Nelson, one of the United States' great historical documentarians, has told the story of the mainstream pacifist civil rights struggle in several of his other films. This parallel fight, the one that caught fire after the killings of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, is less well documented.
There are a few reasons for that. First, the Panthers were never very specific about their goals. They were quick to develop camera-ready activism, and to deliver basic social services, like the free breakfast program for children they started in 1969. But their frequently cited ten-point program was almost willfully obtuse, its goals impossibly lofty. Most everyone in other anti-establishment movements at the time could agree that decent housing, full employment, and an end to police brutality were worthy objectives, but the release of every single black person from jail was a harder sell.
Not surprisingly, most interviewees in The Black Panthers don’t get too lost in the fine print of Black Panther Party (BPP) ideology. But the group's leadership continues to pose a variety of questions. Instead of a single leader, the Panthers had a coterie of them, all equally magnetic and also so self-contradictory that just about every interview subject here has a strong opinion on them.
Huey P. Newton was the firebrand while Bobby Seale initially espoused a more cautious plan for change. As for Eldridge Cleaver, the author of Soul on Ice and the Panthers' out-front intellectual, he was a wild card. “Was he crazy?” asks Felipe Luciano, a leader of the Young Lords (the activist Puerto Rican street gang who teamed up with the Panthers at one point), “Fuck yeah!” There was no way all three were ever going to get along.
As the rhetoric on all sides escalated -- particularly following the arrest of Newton for the murder of a police officer and the resulting “Free Huey” movement -- the BPP was growing swiftly and “chaotically” around the country. The dissonance between revolutionary discourse and concrete action, talking big about “offing the pigs” or feeding hungry black children, became increasingly acute.
That dissonance broke down along gender lines, too. As in many radical movements of the time, the men gave out the orders and the women did what needed to be done. Stanford historian Clayborne Carson notes here that the Party had members its leaders didn’t deserve.
With self-created fissures already in place, all law enforcement had to do was provide the chisel and hammer. Nelson interviews several police officers who had experience with the Panthers at the time to explain in a few tart words their reactions to the gun-toting pseudo-Marxists who taught young kids to say, “Fuck you, pig.”
More threatening to the Panthers, though, was the negative interest taken by J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). The FBI documents parsed by the film lay out Hoover’s obsessive determination to harass, infiltrate, provoke, and annihilate the Panthers before their brand of militarism could infect the black population at large. Although the Panthers’ agenda was far too ideologically scattered to ever create a solid base of mainstream support, Hoover was determined to stop the rise of a “black messiah” (his words). Nowhere in the excerpted documents does it appear that Hoover suggested instituting judicial and housing reforms or cracking down on police brutality to sap the Panthers of their recruiting power.
The FBI and police offensive against the Panthers and any possible messiahs went where one would expect: mass arrests and plenty of bullets. In April 1969, 21 Panthers were charged in New York with attempted terrorism. That December, Chicago police burst into the apartment of Panther leader Fred Hampton -- who, unlike many other Panther leaders, had been making headway with building a broad coalition of activists beyond the black militant movement -- and gunned him down in one of the era’s most blatant political assassinations.
Following that one-two punch, with Cleaver ranting from exile in Algeria and much of the rest of the leadership structure facing prison sentences, the Panthers were essentially kneecapped, and never quite recovered. The quick rise and long flameout of the Party, with their prodigious talent for myth-making and the gap between their image and their reality, left a long residual impact on the American subconscious. In The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, the ex-members' cacophony of opinions suggests that the Panthers were something of a blank slate, onto which they and others imprinted their hopes and fears.
If Nelson’s film has a fault, besides the occasionally dry tone (a surprise from the director of the scorching Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple), it’s an inability to wrestle with the BPP's legacy and. truthfully, its failures. At a short-attention-span time in American history, when new activist movements for racial justice seem to flicker in and out of existence like fireflies, the potency and fury of the Panthers’ demands for justice have lessons to deliver, good and bad.