Last night, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" debuted on PBS celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. In the past, much of the narrative surrounding their significance had been one of violence and rebellion.
While it was seen as a negative thing by society at large and to those within the black community who believed that nonviolent protest was the way to go, others thought that the only solution for dealing with fascist white supremacy was through violence.
However, as was illustrated in this documentary, the truth was somewhere in between.
The film initially screened at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews in January of 2015. Directed by Stanley Nelson, Jr., the film takes a look into the leaders, members, demands and eventual fracturing of the Black Panther Party. However, there are some who believe it fell woefully short of capturing the whole picture. Said Danny Haiphong of the left-leaning online publication Black Agenda Report;
In nearly two hours, Nelson displays a montage of interviews and video clips that effectively depict the Black Panther Party as a non-ideological, disorganized, and infantile group. There is ZERO mention of the Black Panther Party's revolutionary, socialist orientation. No historical context is given on why or how the Black Panther party formed, or what activities and actions helped grow the organization. Eldridge Cleaver is elevated to superstar status in the film, while Huey Newton is portrayed as a gangster whose best days were spent behind prison walls.
Though the film is slanted in many aspects, it must be noted that the slant taken is gleaned from the testimony of over 50 participants, only 30 of which made it to the final cut. It also explores the personalities of leaders Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale, their respective leadership styles as well as their personal flaws.
However, there was very little detail regarding what singular happening led to the formation of the party nor much mention of what helped spurn its ideologies.
That being said, there is plenty of educational information that can be pulled from the documentary. In addition to broadly discussing the conditions that helped create the Black Panther Party, Nelson’s work also highlights former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with the group, the manner in which the group was infiltrated by informants, the supporters of the party of various ethnic backgrounds, the way its posturing often overshadowed its pragmatic tenets, and much more.
As a creation will ultimately bear the fingerprints of its creator so too does "The Black Panther: Vanguard of the Revolution" bear the mark of Stanley Nelson, Jr. It is a documentary that is limited within its shell, but will undoubtedly spurn those who are willing to learn more about the Party to search for specifics. The manner in which the Party continues to influence much of the modern thought process of many young people of African descent in America cannot be understated. Especially so in light of the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued manner in which young African-Americans are still being targeted by law enforcement.