Movie Review: How the Black Panthers Fought to Make Black Lives Matter in the ’60s and ’70s

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Black Panthers on parade at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park in Oakland, Calif., July 28, 1968
Courtesy of Stephen Shames

If you think the Black Lives Matter movement has been vehement, consider what the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense did in response to a similar litany of police brutality, institutionalized racism and social injustice. In May 1967, 26 members walked into the California State Assembly openly carrying weapons. It made quite a scene and loudly announced to the country that black people were no longer going to be passive victims of state-sponsored oppression.

The Black Panthers were different and broad based. The image of young, armed black men standing assertively in legislative chambers is indelible, but the Panthers also sponsored breakfast programs, organized voter-registration campaigns and ran for office. They were one of the most potent political organizations of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

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In the decades since, their legacy has become murky. Yes, they were militant but also socially aware. A party leader, Bobby Seale, ran for mayor of Oakland, Calif., in 1973, and out of a field of nine candidates, he finished second, forcing a runoff with incumbent John Reading. But Eldridge Cleaver, another party leader and the author of Soul on Ice, became a born-again Christian and spent much of the ’80s publicly supporting conservative Republican causes.

It’s that complicated legacy that filmmaker Stanley Nelson explores with admirable detail and depth in his new film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The film premieres Sept. 2 at the Film Forum in New York City, where it runs through Sept. 15. It begins an impressive national rollout Sept. 11 that includes more than two dozen major cities in September and October. It will also air on PBS in 2016.

The film is equal parts exhaustive chronicle of the Panthers’ peak era and a loving paean to the culture of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when social change was a key part of the zeitgeist. The movie opens with a clip from Soul Train of the Chi-Lites performing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” and it concludes with Gil Scott-Heron’s mournful “Winter in America” playing over the final credits.

Nelson is the director of several award-winning documentaries, including The Freedom Riders, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords and The Murder of Emmett Till; he’s also won a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Humanities Medal. His style is typically lean and detailed, and it serves him well here. The story is told without a narrator; instead, a veritable parade of party members—Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Jamal Joseph—and nearly a dozen others who were deeply involved with the Panthers tell the story of the organization.

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There are also interviews with historians and experts who put the movement into context. The film features enormous amounts of vintage footage, showing Panther protests as well as the breakfast program and the general unrest of the time. It also shows in great detail the government’s response to the Panthers and its energetic attempts to vilify, harass, undermine and kill party leaders.

Because the movie lacks a narrator, the viewer can get a solid sense that the Panthers were part of the new normal of their era. It was a time when civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights had entered the agenda while a vastly unpopular war was being waged in Vietnam. Change wasn’t a slogan or a proposal or an agenda; it was something that happened almost every day.

The movie has its malcontents. Brown wrote this scathing rebuke of it, and I was left wondering where Seale was amid the cast of expert witnesses in Nelson’s presentation. Yet his absence doesn’t diminish the film’s powerful message about the possibility of change and the extraordinary resistance such efforts face.

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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