The Black Panthers and the Rise of Revolutionary Culture

A new documentary from Stanley Nelson, Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, brings together all the elements of the Panthers’ story, from the party’s origins to its power struggles to its ultimate infiltration and demise at the hands of the FBI.

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Huey Newton (with fist raised) of the Black Panthers at a Revolutionary People’s Party Convention in 1970

David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Long before Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry for justice, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was demanding a similar call to action with “All power to the people.” The new documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution reminds us that unfortunately, so much has not changed over the years.

The revolutionary organization was founded, in part, to fight police brutality and monitor cops. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson told The Root after a showing of the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered Jan. 23, that “the Panthers were fighting against police brutality 50 years ago, and here we are today walking through the streets saying ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’”

Nelson’s film could not be timelier, with next year marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The director said he was 15 years old and living in New York City when he first learned about the group, whose trademark uniform included a black beret, black pants and black leather jacket.

“I was fascinated by them, and I just felt that it would make a great film and that nobody had really told the Panthers’ story in any kind of comprehensive way,” said Nelson. He also told The Root, “It was a story that obviously needed to be told because I think that who the Panthers were will make a difference in how they come down in history.”

What better person to take on that challenge than the director behind so many other documentaries that chronicle black lives, including last year’s Freedom Summer and 2003’s The Murder of Emmett Till, which contributed to the reopening of the investigation into the case?

Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution looks at the organization’s roots, growth and eventual demise through rare archival footage, historical photos, popular music and present-day interviews with those who lived through the movement. Kathleen Cleaver, who was not only a Black Panther but also married to one of the party’s leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, plays a major role in telling the story. Several other Panthers also lend their voices to the documentary, including Elbert “Big Man” Howard, one of the founding members, and Wayne Pharr, who was involved in the Dec. 8, 1969, shootout with police at the Panthers’ Los Angeles headquarters, something highlighted in the film.

The Panthers were co-founded by Huey P. Newton, who was killed in 1989 by a drug dealer, and Bobby Seale, who is still a political activist. Unfortunately, Seale is not interviewed for the documentary. Of that, Nelson said only, “We could just not reach an agreement with Bobby Seale to participate in the film.” Seale’s website indicates that he is raising funds to produce his own film about the Panthers.

Still, Nelson said that it took him seven years to make the documentary, which really gives a sense of who the Panthers were, what it was like to be a member and why people joined. The film also highlights the Panthers’ 10-point program and their highly successful children’s breakfast program, which began to draw the ire of the FBI.

In 1968 then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” A year later the FBI Counterintelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO, was used to help dismantle the party. By the end of 1969, rising Panther leader Fred Hampton was killed in a police shootout, which the film documents in great detail. It is both painful and infuriating to watch on-screen as the Panthers are ultimately brought down by the tactics the FBI employed. From the use of informants who were members of the party to the rift between Newton and Cleaver that was created by the agency, it’s all laid bare in the film.     

In the end, Nelson said, he wants people to come away from his film realizing that change is possible: "I think the most important lesson is that change can be made; you have to struggle for change. The Black Panthers said we can make change.” Whether they were right or wrong in how they went about it, that’s a different story. A theatrical release is scheduled for the fall of 2015, and then Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution will air on PBS next year.

Readers of The Root are invited exclusively to submit their own Black Panther photos to the film company at info@firelightmedia.org. Some will be posted on the movie’s Facebook page and possibly on theblackpanthers.com film site.

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.

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