Now’s the right time for a documentary detailing the ambitions and failures of the Black Panthers, especially if it corrects the current hijacking of black American protest by anarchists and race hustlers. In The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, filmmaker Stanley Nelson outlines the cultural space, from the Sixties to the Seventies, in which the upstart organization (originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) made exciting history and then dissolved in a welter of government interference, violence, and slightly less spectacular internecine rivalry.
It’s a wide-ranging story of American determination and political audacity — invoking the Founding Fathers’ aspirations through an almost reverse mirror image. In California in 1966, three handsome, blazingly articulate, and driven young men — Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, all from Oakland’s urban ghetto — started a true street movement. They legally armed themselves in reaction to patterns of police harassment — a program inspired by the era’s global anti-colonial struggles. Their intention was to step up changes in social conditions for American blacks.
Provocateur and folklorist Melvin Van Peebles made an avant-pop entertainment out of Panther mythology in the insightful 1995 group bio-pic Panther, but a non-fiction film would require a different breadth, equal to those long-form Seventies Marcel Ophuls documentaries, The Sorrow and the Pity (about French collaboration and resistance during World War II), A Sense of Loss (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland), and The Memory of Justice (about post-WWII guilt). Nelson, regrettably, takes a familiar, superficial PBS-style approach: One former Panther reminisces: “We were making history. And it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy; it was complex.” From there, Nelson’s adumbration of many facts and many personal stories is relentless.
Nelson’s attention to Newton, Cleaver, and Seale’s dissimilar personalities gives the documentary some distinction.
The political bias of the PBS doc method — a hidden contradiction of its federal funding — has to be recognized. Superficial history (through vintage footage and talking-heads recall) favors a declamatory, left-leaning redundancy. In this case, white historian Beverly Gage repeats: “The FBI wanted to destroy the Panthers; they absolutely wanted this organization to be destroyed.” Or else, accumulated details stir reflection, then get pushed aside: The stunning, pre-Panthers clip of Stokely Carmichael declaring, “You tell them white folk in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead. We want black power!” while Martin Luther King Jr., also on the platform, looks the other way only touches on the rift between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but it should inform our appreciation of Newton, Cleaver, and Seale’s eventual ideological clash.
This story is too big for two hours of highlights; it needs expansion beyond the PBS norm, such as the late Henry Hampton took when making Eyes on the Prize. It also needs cultural particulars, like the story behind the Black Panthers’ logo, which the 1990 doc Berkeley in the Sixties showed by connecting the tactics of white and black Bay Area dissidents (to fund themselves, the Panthers helped student radicals sell Mao’s Little Red Book).
#share#Nelson, instead, chooses a conventional pop-culture approach: A Soul Train clip of R&B group the Chi-Lites singing their hit “Power to the People” is stirring, but it’s used here as trivia when it deserves a separate discourse on the political consciousness that was articulated beyond protest meetings — the broad-based spirit of appeal that defined a genuine people’s movement, even in popular music. Without such depth, Nelson’s film does not challenge present-day assumptions about Sixties and Seventies black protests. Nelson is likely to be acclaimed by those who would oversimplify and misconstrue the facts behind those civil-rights protests. With little regard for community feeling — for example, how the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program for children rooted the group’s local image — today’s agitators flip the Panthers’ inspiration backward from self-protection into self-destruction.
Recent cultural and political deracination has led to such offensive films as The Black Power Mixtape (non-essential historical footage collated by Swedish TV and newly exploited by Millennial race hustlers) and to the unscrupulous parallels that Straight Outta Compton makes to Black Lives Matter poseurs. The implication that all black protests are the same and all protesters are martyrs insults the history of conscientious personal and political response.
Nelson is not above flirting with that popular, but misleading, implication. That’s part of the way the black civil-rights disciples have been hijacked. Personal political principles have been replaced by the sanctimony of anarchists and others who turn demonstrators into indistinguishable, unruly Bolsheviks. They pretend-recapitulate the old protests to their own venal satisfaction.
#related#Because we are in an era that is more gullible than revolutionary — believing disingenuous news-media biases and platitudes — it might help to know the
history of the Black Panthers and their conflicts, so that viewers become more circumspect about today’s facile claims toward justice and peace. This is where Nelson’s attention to Newton, Cleaver, and Seale’s dissimilar personalities (and the lost presence of Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton, both killed during police raids) gives the doc some distinction.
Those controversial names and faces remain little more than legendary, but Nelson gets a few striking comments from some less-well-known former Panthers. Felipe Luciano on Cleaver: “Was he insane? F*** yeah, that boy was crazy, and he got a lot of people hurt!” And Wayne Pharr memorably defends his 1969 standoff with Los Angeles police: “They couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get out. In that little space I had I was the king. I was a free Negro.” Pharr brings back the basic, human need for self-respect and the urge to make a social statement of one’s own.
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Back in the Seventies, when crime films changed from film noir to Blaxploitation (it was Hollywood’s attempt to keep up with urban unrest), action heroes played out the audience’s need for authority and self-expression (other ethnicities partook vicariously — thus the stardom of Bruce Lee). That tradition is reversed in The Transporter Refueled.
Actor Ed Skrein stands apart from Jason Statham’s performances as Frank Martin in the earlier Transporter films. Statham had a Scally skinhead toughness, whereas the new Frank resembles a high-fashion model gone rogue. The angular bone structure of Skrein’s face (isn’t his name streamlined and startling enough?) promises sharp, dangerous turns, repeated in the film’s stylized car stunts. Skrein is one of the variations producer Luc Besson has made to keep the franchise relevant. This new plot involves human trafficking, using action-film formulas to satisfy viewers’ need for emotional and ideological release.
But there’s a limit. Refueled is not as splendid as Olivier Megaton’s Transporter 3. Skrein delivers, and yet, as ex-Panther Pharr said about the frustrating placebos of Shaft and other Blaxploitation films, Skrein feels like an image forced upon us.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.