*Stanley Nelson’s documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” couldn’t come at a better time.
PBS had this on its “Independent Lens” schedule long before Beyonce marched her Black Panther-themed dancers onto the field at Super Bowl 50, and directly into a predictable, ignorant backlash from the right.
A range of black voices on TV, from Michael Smith of ESPN’s “His & Hers” to Killer Mike on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” urged their dissenting white counterparts in TV punditry to do some research (or better yet, a Google search) before reducing the entire Black Panther Party to that of violence against the police.
Well, now the research has come to everyone with a television.
Premiering Tuesday (Feb. 16) at 9 p.m., Nelson’s two-hour documentary points out that the Party started 50 years ago in Oakland as mostly a watchdog group against racial oppression – by way of police brutality. Members would get wind of an arrest and arrive on scene to simply observe the apprehension from a distance, guns unconcealed and at the ready. At the time, open carry laws were legal, and the Panthers made full use of their second amendment right to bear arms.
The film goes on to give a warts-and-all account of the Party, foreshadowed at the outset by former Panther Erica Huggins. “We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean,” she says.
“We were a bunch of young people who said, no, we won’t tolerate it any longer,” Huggins told the Television Critics Association during a panel for the film at its Winter Press Tour in January. “The visibility we had created a shiver through the United States, because we were we are, I’m sorry to say, the descendants of enslaved Africans. And so the shiver was a fear based shiver. But in communities of color all over the country and throughout the globe, there was no fear. There was a sigh of relief. People were able to breathe, that someone is finally saying no and honoring the legacy both of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, who, by the way, at the end of their lives, were beginning to work together.”
Nelson includes an extensive amount of archival footage to paint a biographical picture of the BPP, including its free breakfasts and healthcare programs, and the dissension between co-founder Huey P. Newton and former Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver that ultimately divided the Party.
Also included is a speech in which co-founder Bobby Seale calls out a newspaper article that declared the Black Panther Party anti-white. “That is a bold-faced lie,” Seale tells the crowd. “We don’t hate nobody because of their color. We hate oppression. We hate the murder of black people in our community.”
There is also footage of non-black groups supporting the Black Panthers, including the Young Patriots, described by a former Panther in the film as “hillbillies” and “Appalachian white boys.” The group invited BPP’s deputy field marshal Bob Lee to speak at one of their meetings.
“There’s police brutality up here, there’s rats and roaches,” Lee tells the group. “There’s poverty up here. That’s the first thing we can unite on. That’s the common thing we have.”
Also covered at length is FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s all out war against the Party, his use of the Bureau’s new counterintelligence program (or COINTELPRO) to target members, and the informant deployed to infiltrate the group.
Below, Nelson explains how he made a point to show that the Black Panther Party was as much about class struggle as it was about battling racial oppression:
Watch a promo of the film below: