One of the signature movements of the mid-1960’s, The Black Panther Party is lovingly profiled, warts and all, in the revealing documentary that explores the meteoric rise and tragic fall in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Coming on the heels of Selma and that non-violent movement that brought about the Voting Rights Act, there were still plenty of ills that affected Black people during the tumultuous decade of the 60s. Tired of rampant police harassment and abuse, a young student of the law, Huey P. Newton and his good friend, Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966. Featuring a Ten Point Program, the formation of the Panthers was initially designed to observe the Oakland police during traffic stops, while taking advantage of a loophole in a California law that allowed people to carry weapons unconcealed. This practice quickly got the attention of local law enforcement intimidated by their presence.
As they were developing their local reputation, once celebrated author Eldridge Cleaver joined; it established their credibility among Black intellectuals. The author of a book of essays, “Soul on Ice,” Cleaver’s book was hailed by The New York Times Book Review at the time of its publication as “brilliant and revealing.” Newton was appointed the Minister of Defense, Seale the Chairman and Cleaver the Minister of Information.
As lawmakers were trying to change the law to prevent the Panthers from having the ability to brandish their weapons in public, the leadership decided to go to the State Capitol to protest. Leaving Newton in Oakland, Seale led a delegation of Black Panthers that stormed the Capitol, even reaching the assembly floor. The media display gained the fledgling organization national attention and tremendous street credibility from coast-to-coast.
Writer/director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer) does an amazing job of balancing the story with key accounts from many of the key and founding members of the party. While the perception of the Party was that it was male dominated, by the late 1960s, women had taken prominent roles and actually outnumbered their male counterparts. Nelson covers all of the necessary ground showing Newton’s arrest and detainment for allegedly murdering an Oakland police officer (he was later exonerated) and massive groundswell of support that he received from around the world, Cleaver’s botched plan that got Bobby Hutton killed and him subsequently fleeing to Algiers to avoid arrest, as well as that being the catalyst to launch the International chapter in 1968.
Although there are so many details that Nelson’s documentary can’t cover due to time limitations, he adequately captures the spirit and the Esprit de corps that existed among the rank-and-file of the movement. There were several wonderful displays of the sense of pride that the community felt as they thought that their movement and visual presentation was unique for the times.
The Party was not just about fighting the “pigs;” there were also plenty of programs for the community. Most notably, the Free Breakfast and Free Clinics were models that provided valuable services and resources and fostered a sense that they truly cared about the people. While the Party was looking for ways to serve and protect the community, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was looking for ways to bring them down. Initiated a COINTELPRO program, the goals of the initiative were to, a) prevent the rise of a Black messiah, b) prevent the growth among youth and finally, c) prevent military black groups from gaining respectability. History would later record that out of 295 actions, 245 were aimed at the Panthers.
Over the next several years, the Black Panther Party would find themselves under siege and their leadership harassed and jailed. Several notable cases included the arrest and high-profile trial of the “Panther 21” in New York, the assassination of the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Party, Fred Hampton and the violent raid and arrest of the leadership of the Los Angeles chapter.
Hoover’s constant pressure would create a major schism in the Party between Newton and Cleaver, which split the Party in half, marking the beginning of the end of the movement. This living testament to a moment of time when the community banded together in the struggle ultimately met its end because there was no way to curb the astronomical growth of the Party and the escalation of the revolutionary rhetoric that not only galvanized its base but law enforcement officials as well. Also, female members of the Party felt minimized by some of their testosterone-filled brothers, who they felt didn’t treat them equally.
As one of the members stated, “we weren’t perfect and we made plenty of mistakes.” Though many of the members’ lives failed to reach the apex of the movement, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a wonderful look at a bygone era as well as a snapshot of a moment in time when the community rallied together an actually gave “power to the people!”