One of the most enduring images of the late 1960s is that of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos atop the podium of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, fists raised in defiant unity with the Black Panther Party. If a picture paints a thousand words the wealth of captivating news footage, photography and contemporary interviews with former party members in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) could fill volumes. The American filmmaker opts for an insightful, engaging, albeit one-sided, two hour documentary. To the beat of a superfly funk soundtrack, Nelson takes an inside look at a revolutionary animal that was, and remains, hard to define.
Just as appearances can be deceiving, there’s a lot more to the dense collage of information laid out here than initially meets the eye. While acknowledging the iconic “urban black is beautiful” image of gun-toting, leather-clad vigilantes, Nelson also demonstrates that the highly mediatised public perception only told a fraction of the full story. Housing, welfare, health and education – as well as a pioneering children’s breakfast program – went far further than the fight for racial equality. Arms were taken up against the capitalist system as much as white supremacy and oppression. Today, as young men continue to be gunned down by officers of the law and President Obama swims against the tide of popular NRA opinion, the events of Nelson’s film retain a saddeningly immediate relevance.
From humble beginnings combating police brutality in Oakland, California, in 1966, Vanguard of the Revolution charts the movement’s rise to relative legitimacy in the face of startling overt suppression by the FBI and other agencies. With a focus on its main movers and shakers – the volatile Huey Newton and increasingly unhinged intellectual Eldridge Cleaver, plus calmer heads such as Bobby Seale and the inspirational Fred Hampton – it moves from one major injustice to the next. The film also emphasises that the Black Panther Party was as much a vehicle for self-discovery for its youthful adherents as it was as a social endeavour, and that the majority of its ‘rank and file’ membership was female. Chauvinism, aggression and even assault by ‘brothers’ on ‘sisters’ is not swept under the carpet entirely but Nelson’s depiction of the Panthers is perhaps not as biting as it should be.
The fact that there is a strong element of bias here is not necessarily unjustified. “Justice is incidental to law and order,” says J. Edgar Hoover. The reprehensible behaviour of the FBI, led by its villainous incumbent, provide instances of jaw-dropping disbelief. It is a pity that Nelson’s film fizzles out in a rather drab final third, however apt that may be in relation to the demise of a revolution that never really knew where it was going. With tongue firmly in cheek one interviewee maintains that the “ideals, youthful vigour and enthusiasm of the Party” was both a blessing and a curse and, whilst being an interesting and educational watch, Vanguard of the Revolution suffers from a similar lack of definition.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is out now on DVD. Visit theblackpanthers.co.uk.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens