Panther Gunfight at a Not-So-O.K. Corral

Undaunted, the pandemic can’t stop the Pan African Film Festival and in that immortal show biz tradition, the show must go on! Albeit virtually, as this year in order to stay cinematically safe, America’s largest and best annual Black-themed filmfest since 1992 is moving online and starting later than usual, kicking off on the last day of Black History Month. 2021’s Pan African Virtual Film + Arts Festival is taking place from Feb. 28 – March 14.

This year, the 29th annual PAFF is screening at least three Black Panther Party-related films: The documentary Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me (see: Pan African Film FestivalTruth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me – PAFF 2021). Judas and the Black Messiah is probably Hollywood’s best political feature in years (see: Pan African Film Festival41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers – PAFF 2021 and Pan African Film FestivalJudas and the Black Messiah – PAFF 2021). (PAFF’s co-founder and fearless leader, Ayuko Babu, is a former Panther, which may explain PAFF’s astute cultural, political and educational prowess.)

This year PAFF is also reprising the 2009 documentary 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, which was originally screened at PAFF in 2010 and again in 2017. I am repurposing my 2017 review here:

41st & Centralwhich is as exciting as any Hollywood shoot-’em-up, won PAFF’s Audience Favorite Award Documentary in 2010. The documentary was directed by Gregory Everett, son of ex-Panther Jeffrey Everett, who is among the film’s interviewees providing eyewitness accounts, along with Panther icons Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins and longtime political prisoner Geronimo Pratt (aka Geronimo Ji Jaga). While the BPP sections of Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me focus on the Party’s free social programs, 41st & Central zooms in on what the Panthers’ were probably most widely known for: Audacious, fearless militancy.

This film is a riveting saga of the creation of the Panthers in Oakland. Armed with firearms and a law book, in 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale boldly patrolled Oakland’s mean streets, confronting the police over their (mis)treatment of Blacks. Insisting on their Second Amendment right to bear arms and that the so-called “pigs” must obey the letter of the law when interacting with African Americans, their brazen, in-your-snout defiance set Huey, Bobby and their followers on a collision course with the Oakland PD, soon the Nixon administration, the FBI, and COINTELPRO (as harrowingly recounted in Judas and the Black Messiah).

The Black Power organization spread to Southern California, with the formation of what was arguably the party’s most militant chapter at L.A. by former prisoner Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins. The doc recounts the socialist-oriented Panthers’ clash with the so-called “porkchop” cultural nationalists of Ron Karenga’s US Organization, which apparently led to the 1968 shootings of Carter and Huggins at UCLA.

However, the film’s title refers to the climactic shoot-out between the LAPD and the Panthers at the BPP’s L.A. HQ located at 41st and Central in the “’hood.” One of the survivors of that tense confrontation declares onscreen that during this violent five-hour standoff he never felt freer, as he was a Black man deciding who would and would not enter the Panther office, which was even aerial bombed during the armed clash.

While 41st & Central is indeed a story about heroic resistance, it’s also arguably a cautionary tale about political recklessness and an implicit critique of the Panthers’ philosophy of “revolutionary suicide”: In revolution, the goal is to vanquish your enemy, not to get killed yourself.

In any case, after PAFF’s 2017 screening the onscreen events — plus the plight of contemporary African Americans — was discussed by a historic panel that included ex-Panthers, a US Organization representative, and ex-LAPD chief and former L.A. city councilman Bernard Parks, whom many accused of police brutality during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, when unprovoked LAPD riot police attacked unarmed demonstrators after a Rage Against the Machine outdoor concert.

Following 2020’s ongoing upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s highly appropriate and commendable that PAFF is highlighting the Panthers, who – as Stanley Nelson put it in the title of another film previously screened at PAFF – were the “Vanguard of the Revolution.” After all, like BLM, the BPP were forged in the furnace of police brutality.

As a tribute to the late filmmaker Gregory Everett who tragically lost his battle with COVID-19 on January 24, 2021, PAFF is hosting a global fundraiser screening to support his family on Saturday, February 20, 5:00 p.m., PST. I believe that 41st & Central is the only full-length film that Mr. Everett directed; what a loss not only to his loved ones, but to lovers of cinema his early death is. His possible future films are, alas, another “Untold Story.” Rest in power good sir!

For more info about 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers see: Pan African Film Festival41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers – PAFF 2021.

For info about PAFF see: Pan African Film FestivalPAFF 2021 – Black films from across the world.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.