Greetings again from the darkness. Black lives matter. We hear the phrase frequently these days, and director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer) takes us back 49 years to the beginning of the Black Panther Party, and then walks us through the rise and fall. Rather than the usual textbook approach that focuses on the famous photos of angry black men wearing leather jackets and berets while toting firearms, this is a much more comprehensive look at the complexities of the organization and its members.
The familiar names of the Black Panther leaders include Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Fred Hampton. Despite the fact that first hand interviews weren’t possible with the big three – Newton and Cleaver are no longer living, and Seale declined the opportunity, there are some fabulous video clips and photographs, many of which have been rarely seen.
It’s the interviews with former Black Panther members that provide the most insight. Their stance is that the original plan was a non-violent approach to bring attention to police brutality and the lack of equality in Black America. Many social programs were started to assist kids and the poor, but things turned more aggressive when the passive approach didn’t yield the desired results. Newton studied the laws and realized open carry was permitted on public property, and that’s where most of the famous photos originated.
The segment on J Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence plan for the FBI to do what was necessary to prevent the expansion of the Black Panthers is one of the film’s best. Hoover even described them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (yes, this was during the Vietnam War). He was especially concerned about the rise of a “messiah”, and that led to what most consider the assassination of Illinois chapter leader Fred Hampton while he slept.
Oakland is widely accepted as the central hub of the Black Panthers, and it was surprising to learn that “most” members were teenagers and a majority were female. The interviews with the former members are fascinating and void of any pomp or bluster … just matter-of-fact recollections. What really stands out is just how media savvy the leaders were. They understood how to get headlines and bring attention to the issues.
We also learn that Jane Fonda hosted fundraisers and meetings, and we see a clip of Marlon Brando supporting the Black Panthers. These celebrities brought legitimacy to the organization, but didn’t stop the fracture that occurred when Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver began feuding over the best direction. Seeing clips of Bobby Seale running for Mayor of Oakland in 1972 certainly brought a contemporary feel, as the black voter registration drives continue to this day.
As one of the former members states “making history” was “not nice and clean”. We learn that more than 20 former Panthers are still in prison today, and the parallels between the mid-60’s and the movement for equality today are undeniable. Director Nelson offers an informative education without preaching or romanticizing the Black Panthers.
watch the trailer: