Stanley Nelson’s documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” aired on PBS just weeks after Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance. It is not clear whether this was intentional or a coincidence, but the two products do share a common theme. Both attempted to embody the Black Panther Party through imagery and art, but neither gave an accurate picture of what the Black Panther Party represented in the context of history and political struggle. This author took great offense to the documentary when it came out in select theaters in the summer of 2015. The greatest crime of the film is its depiction of Huey P. Newton.
The Black Panther Party that Huey Newton helped form has received national attention of late. Activists and journalists have praised Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl as a catalyst for independent research of the Black Panther Party. However, if Nelson’s documentary serves as the masses reintroduction to the Black Panther Party than the people will find themselves miseducated. The film omits the political ideology of the Party and the historical context from which it formed. What little content exists is riddled with distortion and inaccuracy.
This is especially true in Nelson’s spotlight on Huey P. Newton. Nelson describes Newton as a troubled leader whose release from prison opened the floodgates to the Black Panther Party’s demise. The film solicits anecdotes of Huey’s mental decline and his supposed transformation into a “gangster.” Nelson’s depiction mimics how the US imperial establishment often portrays Newton. The film failed to highlight Newton’s contributions to the Black Panther Party and the revolutionary struggle as a whole. True to the entire film, the demonization of Newton created a comfortable, but dangerous, media spectacle for liberal US viewers.
Revolutionary forces the world over must rescue Huey Newton’s legacy from the grips of the imperial state. Like many oppressed Black Americans, Newton received an assembly line education in the US public school system and graduated illiterate. He was inspired by his older brother to eradicate his illiteracy and obtain a college degree. It was in community college that Newton was exposed to the Black movement of the time. He became frustrated with the limitations of campus politics and Black Nationalism. With the aid of Bobby Seale, Newton responded by organizing the first Black Panther Party chapter in October 1966.
Newton was instrumental in the Black Panther Party’s organization of armed patrols of the police in and around the Oakland area. His courage to stand up to what the Black Panther Party called “the army of occupation” in the Black community was an effective recruiting tool. Newton organized security for Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz, during her visit to the Bay area. It was here that a fully armed Newton confronted a police officer that failed to arrest a journalist for assault. The officer stood down.
Newton also organized the independent investigation of 22 year-old Denzell Dowell’s death at the hands of the Richmond police as a means to expose the racist and repressive character of the police. The Black Panther Party organized armed rallies in Richmond. This prevented police intervention and inspired residents to bring arms to the rallies as well. The Black Panther Party covered these rallies in their newspaper. The Panther newspaper helped spread the militant activities and the organization’s militant ideas. Coverage of the Dowell investigation spurred the formation of Black Panther Party chapters all over the country.
Aside from his courage and willingness to stand up to the police, Huey Newton was also a theoretical genius. Newton studied the works of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Fanon with precision and purpose. He wrote numerous essays on Black Capitalism, imperialism, and was the architect of the theory of revolutionary intercommunalism. Newton believed that the inherent contradictions of global imperialism required a worldwide revolutionary struggle for socialism. This struggle would lay the basis for intercommunalism and erode the artificial national boundaries drawn by imperialist plunder. Newton envisioned that Black America would work together with a community of nations to develop a new world free of exploitation.
Whatever mistakes Newton made during his time as leader of the Black Panther Party do not outweigh his great achievements and contributions to the historic struggle for socialist liberation. Individual errors must be placed in proper context. The US government made numerous attempts on Newton’s life and, while not yet proven, may have orchestrated his eventual murder in 1989. Newton’s advanced political analysis tackled questions such as sexual oppression and anarchism. His sacrifice for freedom can be seen in his offer to send Black Panthers in 1970 to fight on the side of Vietnamese during the US invasion of the country.
Nelson’s documentary chose not to shed light on the Huey Newton’s life as a revolutionary hero. This alone makes the film an illegitimate source of information on one of the most important moments of revolutionary history. Huey Newton would of turned 74 on February 17th. Newton believed that while people could be imprisoned or die, ideas could not. It is the role of this generation’s movement leaders to pass on Newton’s ideas and actualize them. Stanley Nelson’s film, rather than an asset, is an obstacle to this historic task.