The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, September 25 to Thursday, October 1. Director Stanley Nelson will be in attendance for the September 27 screening. Additional screenings feature several guest speakers – please refer to the Siskel Center website for more details.
Among the virtues of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is that director Stanley Nelson makes no direct connection between the historical reality that his film documents and the present – he doesn’t have to. As figures of the Black Panther party and historians discuss the rise and fall of the organization from the 1960s to the 1970s, their advocacy – their ten-point plan – outlines a culture in dire need of basic human liberties: for freedom, an end to police brutality, and access to education and fair housing. These demands, published in 1967 as part of a circular by the Panthers, remain as unfulfilled then as they do now.
Structured conventionally as a rise-to-fall narrative, Nelson emphasizes the false mythopoeia that has taken hold of the image of the Black Nationalist movement (and subsequently generated the misinformed image of the black male). Often relegated to images of aggressive black men in leather-clad outfits, Nelson deconstructs this generalization, going so far as to open his film with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, whereby the subjectivity of experience does not account for the totality of truth. As Nelson elaborates, high-ranking Black Panther members such as Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were disinterested in vigilante action, opting instead to foster relationships with other oppressed peoples. Women, too, were integral to the organization’s growth, accounting for more than half of the Black Panther’s membership. And while the media often highlighted acts of paroxysm (even if these acts were only dubiously linked with the Black Panthers), they failed to account for the sweeping social services that the movement spurred, including educational reforms and breakfast programs for black youths.
Yet in spite of the film’s generous and detailed accounts, it’s Stanley’s unmotivated approach that does not match the fervor and passion of his material. At times it’s appropriate: there’s a deflated anxiety that permeates many of the interviews in the film. As the organization saw much of its economy diverted to a slew of costly legal battles (primarily the result of FBI wire-tapping and invasions of privacy) the image of what it meant to be a Black Panther became distorted – it was an image of criminality and hostility, not of the equality that it so often contested for. Stanley steps asides and offers his subjects the platform to dispel the negative imagery by not merely gleaming over the past but by highlighting that social change is possible; to learn from the mistakes of the Panthers and provoke the necessary resistance against disenfranchisement.