I finally had the opportunity to view the film The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution by Stanley Nelson.
First, I must say the quality of the production is stunning. As far as I know, some of the archival footage has never been seen in film before. The documentary contributes to accentuating the power of the Black Panther Party and its members. In addition, the interviews by former Black Panther Party members provide a glimpse into how articulate, savvy and intelligent the BPP members were.
For me, the film was an emotional rollercoaster ride. It forced me to relive the glory, and victory the pain, the happiness, the love and the sadness that was a part of everyday Panther life. I was especially struck at seeing the murder of Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton. Stanley Nelson did a decent job in showing to the world the greatness of Fred and the cruelty of his murder.
Yet, I feel this is one of those films that could have been a classic and a great piece of cinematic historical work. Unfortunately, Stanley Nelson commits the mistake that is detrimental to any documentary filmmaker and that is objectivity. I realize that documentaries are not and cannot be completely objective. At the same time, it is the responsibility of every documentary filmmaker to try to tell many sides of a story or at least not to leave out critical chunks of the truth. Additionally, storytellers should know to include the beginning, the middle and the end.
For some reason, Nelson chose to omit the last four years of the BPP history from 1974 to 1978 that would have shown what the BPP did best: rebound and recover from loss and defeat. Had Stanley taken the effort and time, audiences would have seen the Party led by Elaine Brown, the first and only woman to ever lead a revolutionary organization.
Under Elaine’s leadership, the Party reinvented itself again. We moved forward in creating a world-class private alternative school, The Oakland Community School. The school received national acclaim and was visited by stars, luminaries, and dignitaries from around the world. The Party under Elaine’s leadership helped to elect the first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, in the City of Oakland. Lionel Wilson’s election led to the BPP having a major influence in the practices and policies of the City of Oakland. The Party also secured two seats for Panther sisters on the port of Oakland. And although the Party no longer had the national presence that it once did, Elaine became one of the most powerful figures in the State of California.
Also, Nelson failed to give a complete representation of Huey. It’s beyond me why Stanley chose to spend so much time in presenting Huey to us as a thug and a drug-addicted fool. This description of Huey demonstrates that the filmmaker did not have a political analysis of the period and the conditions that led to Huey to go astray after his release from prison.
There were many factors at play that led to Huey’s demise. The first being the tremendous assault on the Party and its leaders, and the consequent pressure that it created. Secondly, Huey upon his release from prison was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He was not prepared to jump into the fire and assume the helm of an international organization that was just a small group of friends when he went into prison. Almost overnight, Huey went from a relatively unknown young man to an international hero who brought fame, power and the adulation of millions. And thirdly, his introduction to cocaine would assure that he would unravel and that he would take the Party down with him.
A more significant point is that there never would have been a Black Panther Party without Huey P. Newton. We cannot forget that it was Huey who led the armed Panthers into the streets to patrol the racist hostile police. Most importantly, Huey was the chief theoretician of the Party. He had unworldly analytical skills that no one in the movement possessed. He was the bravest of the brave. And every Panther who was dedicated to the movement was an embodiment of Huey’s spirit. We could not have done what we did without Huey as our guiding force. He also went on to receive his PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He wrote two books and many articles including the classic paper on Revolutionary Intercommunalism. Leading American philosophers consider Huey as one of the greatest Marxist philosophers of his time.
There is another crucial point I’d like to make. Had Huey not been in jail when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Huey would not have allowed the April 4th shoot-out that led to the death of little Bobby Hutton and the subsequent arrest of 18 veteran members of the Black Panther Party. That event was the beginning of the demise of the Party. Besides the loss of little Bobby Hutton, it led to the incarceration of key veterans of the Party – most notably Chief of Staff David Hilliard – at a crucial time after Huey’s release from prison. Huey needed these veteran Party members to help him to adjust and lead the Party.
I don’t expect an idolized or romanticized depiction of Huey, but Stanley’s film leaves us with a vial portrayal of Huey P. Newton. The film additionally provides an incomplete story of the Party by leaving those last four years out when Elaine Brown was its leader.
The film also fails to mention that over 30 members of the Black Panther Party perished in the line of duty. It does not inform the audience that over 20 political prisoners are still incarcerated in prisons throughout the United States.
On the other hand, this film is far better than the film Panther produced in 1995 by Melvin Van Peebles. With The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution, the Panthers have a film that captures the power and dynamitism, the bravery and effectiveness and audacity of the Black Panther Party and its members. Thousands of people will view this film and will be left with a fuller and more tangible picture of the greatness of the BPP.
In fact, this film will most likely spur even more interest into the history and the legacy of the Black Panther Party. In watching this documentary, I feel hopeful that more films will dive into the full story of one of the most inspirational and influential organizations in American history. This will not be the last film on the BPP.