Director Stanley Nelson tells the story of one of the most influential radical movements to emerge from the United States, whose legacy is both enduring and politically misunderstood, writes Season Butler

It takes little more than a passing glance at recent headlines to grasp the stinging relevance of the Black Panther Movement. Developments in state surveillance, which evolved in response to the Civil Rights movement and Black Radicalism linger stubbornly: SWAT teams and other escalations in the militarisation of civilian police forces; racial profiling and harassment through arbitrary searches; public humiliation, excessive force and extra-judicial, unconstitutional, state-sanctioned killings of unarmed people of colour by police.

Sepia-toned images of all of these grotesque practices from 1960s archive footage bear a horrific family resemblance to the ones we see on CNN, and makes up the bulk of Stanley Nelson’s stunning new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015).

The difference is that, between these films and still images of hideous injustice,we are treated to scenes of strength, defiance, solidarity, joy and enchantment from America’s most notorious radical movement.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense is too easily and routinely misremembered as a movement of black separatists, anti-white bigots, bloodthirsty militants or simply street-wise fashion plates with shotguns posing black berets and leather. Nelson seems to know this all too well, and draws the viewers’ focus to two central points from the outset of the film. One is that the Party was committed to the overthrow of capitalism, a system it viewed as fundamentally predicated on inequality and exploitation. The second was its commitment to basic human rights for all.

The vacuum left by deindustrialisation continues to be addressed by the modern prison complex and military-industrial proliferation; by the mid-60s, black men made up 41% of the men drafted to fight in Vietnam at a time when African Americans were only 11% of the population.

The Panthers’ swagger was irresistible because it arose from total authenticity. Panther consciousness seemed to recognise the fatal combination of audacity and tenacity of white elite oppression – and matched it with its own erotic charge.

“These brothers are BAD.” As arrogant and fearless as the white police state, their days were surely numbered.

A true Leninist vanguard

The level of human and material resources US government agencies invested in the decimation of the Panthers was breath-taking. More effective – and heartbreaking – than the SWAT teams, assassinations and human rights violations was the infiltration of the Party by a network of informants. This established a cancer of paranoia within the group, and the elite class sat back with infuriating smugness as the Party imploded.

This is also the story of young people confronted with the terrifying reality of true revolution. In one former Panther’s account, the leadership kept “upping the ante,” because, of course, reform would never be enough within a structure predicated on inequality and exploitation.

True to the spirit of 1917, members were unvetted

The FBI was most vigilant against the “rise of a messiah” from the Black Radical Movement, and they found one in the young activist Fred Hampton. Nelson’s selection spotlights Hampton’s legendary magnetism and casts him as an orator with the power to tease out the confidence and conscience of those who listened to him. The film also shows his crucial role in fostering alliances with a number of other oppressed groups, each with distinct identities and agendas but which shared an understanding of US capitalism as fundamentally predicated on exploitation.

This was not the Sunday-best, other-cheek-turning, Ghandi-inspired Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King – and all the excellent work they did – were elsewhere. For the Panthers to be effective, they had to be menacing. Their look screamed: “be afraid, motherfuckers.”

“Justice is incidental to law and order.” J Edgar Hoover

And motherfuckers they were. By 1969, FBI chief J Edgar Hoover had declared the Party, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The extent of Hoover’s racist sentiment is exposed by the context of this statement – a memo strategising ways to undermine the success of the Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program.  (Their first was in January 1969; by 1970 they we feeding 10,000 children before school.)

One of the film’s main strengths is that it highlights the diversity of weapons in the Panthers’ arsenal. They played on white America’s fear of the Black Other; they understood the absolute necessity of love and provision, running thousands of free health clinics, sickle cell anaemia research projects and blood donation drives.

Huey Newton’s legal training led him to identify an obscure article in California law that allowed the open carrying of guns by civilians in public places. The group, then just a few young black men, were able to demonstrate an open and militant opposition to racist state structures, including their early self-defence patrols. Shadowing police in black neighbourhoods, they ensured that officers tempted to harass and brutalise black people were faced with a dark wall of armed intimidation by the Panthers.

Nelson tells the Panthers’ story without voiceover narration, deftly revealing archive footage and talking-head interviews with ex-Panthers allowing the imagery alone to convey the vivid zeitgeist. This technique prevents the documentary from straying into didacticism, but sometimes means that we have to read between the lines.

In the section about the extraordinary young activist Fred Hampton – marked as the “messiah” Hoover feared would rise through the movement – and elsewhere in the film, we see organisations based in predominantly in the white working class, as well as Latinos, Asians, and Jews.

This is indeed valuable for the general viewer who may have held the common misconception that the Panthers were anti-white or separatist in nature. These links ring slightly more subtly with the long tradition of inter-racial collaboration and solidarity in the US. The black-white racial divide, as we know it, is a modern construction servicing the bosses’ class. Without diminishing Hampton’s oratory and diplomatic skills, the film shows that his alliance-making was no phenomenal act of effort and persuasion, but rather a continuation of the history of solidarity that has cemented so much of the US proletariat. 

While some of the problems in the Party are given the weight of treatment they warrant, others go unaddressed. The filmmakers seem to recognise the need to revisit the central purpose of the Black Panther Party and to revive its spirit of solidarity and opposition to oppression, and to ensure that future movements safeguard against the sabotage, personality politics and loss of direction that led to its downfall.

Overall, the film is energising and inspiring. It opens the stage for this movement to take a difficult but often joyful retrospective look at itself, and lets the viewer, for a short time, share in the Panthers’ swagger.

It is our task to ensure that the energy and creativity of the Panthers – as well as a sense of their weaknesses – is intravenously injected into today’s movement.