'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution'
VenueSundance Film Festival, Doc Premieres
Stanley Nelson chronicles the short life of an iconic organization.
Drama was never in short supply with the Panthers, and Newton's arrest early in their existence provided a rallying cry that was (like their fondness for calling police "pigs") taken up by white college students and other left-leaning groups. While he shows the power of the "Free Huey" slogan, Nelson isn't eager to investigate it; he tells us almost nothing about the incident that led to Newton's imprisonment (he was accused of killing a policeman), nor does he give us any way of guessing whether it was just or unjust.
The omission of such significant details is puzzling given that Nelson soon enough proves willing to show the group's leaders in an unfavorable light. We watch in some detail as their intellectual star, Eldridge Cleaver, goes off the deep end following an armed standoff, fleeing to Algeria and eventually fracturing the party. And near the end, we briefly hear of Newton's descent into drugs and erratic, criminal behavior. It's tempting to conclude that the film is willing to be frank about the problems party figures caused themselves and each other, but the doc wants few shades of gray when it comes to antagonism between Panthers and the police.
The film's most involving bit of storytelling comes when the villainy of law enforcement is in no doubt. After detailing J. Edgar Hoover's fervor to destroy the group with COINTELPRO and dirty tricks, it introduces the tremendously charismatic Fred Hampton, who in 1969 seemed poised to emerge as the kind of "black messiah" Hoover feared. Just as he was starting to build inspiring alliances between Panthers and activists in Latino and poor white communities, Hampton was killed in an FBI-engineered police raid that begs to be called a political assassination.
Straight history is not the whole point here, as Nelson enthusiastically conjures a sense of what it felt like to be a Panther and to be a young black person inspired by them. Alongside historians, we hear from many surviving party members, including Jamal Joseph, Kathleen Cleaver, and William Calhoun. (The absence of Seale, the most famous surviving Panther, is not explained.) Adding a bounty of excellent archival photographs and some good political soul on the soundtrack, the movie makes unnecessary one member's happy recollection that "we had a swagger."
Production company: Firelight Media
Director: Stanley Nelson
Producer: Laurens Grant
Directors of photography: Antonio Rossi, Rick Butler
Editor: Aljernon Tunsil
Music: Tom Phillips
No rating, 114 minutes
MARVIN X INTERVIEWED FOR DOCUMENTARY ON BLACK PANTHERS AND THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT
Bobby Seale and Marvin X at the Joyce
Gordon Gallery Black History Celebration, 2012
No aspect of the Black Consciousness Movement sprang up in isolation. We cannot discuss the Black Panthers without discussing the African American Association, led by Donald Warden, aka Khalid Abdullah Tariq Al Mansour. From the AAA's influence came the Panthers and the establishment of Black Studies at Oakland's Merritt College, even before the violent strike for Black Studies at San Francisco State College, now university.
And would the students at Merritt and San Francisco State have been motivated without the West Coast Black Arts Movement, e.g., Bobby Seale performed in Marvin X's second play Come Next Summer before joining the BPP. Bobby played the role of a young black man in search of revolutionary consciousness.
At San Francisco State College, LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka's Communications Project enrolled student actors and playwrights such as Jimmy Garrett, Benny Stewart, George Murray, Jo Ann Mitchell, Elleadar Barnes, et al., who went on to participate in the Black Panther Party after BAM consciousness.
At San Francisco State College, now University, Marvin X's first play, Flowers for the Trashman, produced by the Drama Department, 1965, ushered in Black Arts West Theatre, 1966, with X and playwright Ed Bullins. Danny Glover performed in BAW. BAW came under the influence of the Nation of Islam will key players joining the NOI, i.e., Marvin X, Duncan X, Hillary X and Ethna X.
Upon his release from prison, 1967, Eldridge Cleaver hooked up with Marvin X and they established the Black House, a political/cultural center, along with Ethna X, Ed Bullins and Willie Dale. Again the Muslim influence: Marvin X an d BAW guru and former inmate with Eldridge, Alonzo Batin, forced Eldridge Cleaver out of his white woman's house (Beverly Axelrod, the attorney who took his manuscript Soul on Ice out of Soledad Prison and whom Eldridge promised to marry, who also contracted a portion of royalties from Soul on Ice and won by default while Eldridge was exiled in Algeria). Eldridge died poor while his book is still an international bestseller as we write! You Marvin X eventually introduced Eldridge Cleaver to Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, Marvin's companions from Merritt College.
But just as the Nation of Islam recruited members of the Black Arts West Theatre, Marvin X would later recruit for the NOI. His biggest fish was no doubt Nadar Ali or Bobby Jones who Elijah Muhammad put over the fish import business.
Islam had a significant role on the East Coast Black Panther Party and the genre Muslim American literature begins with Marvin X and the BAM writers, e.g., Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad Toure, et al.
Governor Ronald Reagan who also removed Angela Davis from UCLA the same year, 1969.