Wednesday May 3, 1995

     Jean-Luc Godard called the well-brought-up radicals of the 1960s "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" and a twist on that celebrated phrase is applicable to "Panther," an examination of the Black Panther Party, and its director Mario Van Peebles, both of which are the children of an equally unlikely pairing: Black Power and Hollywood.
     As the son of Melvin Van Peebles, the renegade filmmaker whose 1971 "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" was a groundbreaking success in the black community, Mario Van Peebles was raised with a firm sense of the political aspects of culture. "Sweet Sweetback" was a favorite of Huey Newton, the B.P.P. minister of defense, and the senior Van Peebles wrote the "Panther" script based on his own time spent with the party leadership.
     But the reason Mario Van Peebles was able to make "Panther" was that his Hollywood credentials are also in excellent order. Though they had a politics of color overlay, both his previous films as a director, "New Jack City" and "Posse," are definitely in the commercial mainstream when it comes to plotting, characterization and the manipulation of on-screen violence.
     What Van Peebles wanted to do with this look at the early days of the ever-controversial Panthers is to unite those two aspects of his style, to make what he himself called an "edutainment" that would use show-biz tools in such a way that "today's kids will see that great, positive things can be accomplished when you come together as a community."
     The hoped-for fusion does not totally happen, however, and though the film's partial fictionalization of Panther history was done in search of a larger reality, what results instead is a frustrating amalgam of truth, violence, supposition and inspiration.
     The most compelling part of "Panther" is a sincere attempt at celebratory, spirit-raising filmmaking in the "Malcolm X" mold, a romanticized but effective attempt at creating heroes and showcasing the positive aspects of the Panther Party and its message of black empowerment and self-respect.
     However, the potential danger with inspirational films, whatever their stripe, is that they tend to be peopled exclusively by one-dimensional folks, heroes or villains with no shades of gray, and from a dramatic point of view "Panther" suffers from this.
     When you add in a tired gangster plot involving shoot-outs, double-crosses and explosions, the upshot is a piece of work that presents different public faces depending on the point of view it is approached from, a film sure to be both over-criticized and overpraised.
     Throwing yet another element into the mix is "Panther's" "JFK" aspects, its detailing of nefarious conspiracies against the Panther Party in particular and the African American community in general. Some of its more incendiary accusations turn out to be well-documented, but others are not, and the difficulty of telling them apart adds to the confusion.
     Melvin Van Peebles' impressionistic script has chosen to focus on the Panthers in their early, most idealistic years, stopping before government-encouraged internal dissension and internecine violence began to tear the organization apart. Rather it details, through the composite character of Judge (Kadeem Hardison), a Vietnam veteran who is a reluctant convert, how the party came to be born in Oakland in 1966 with the two words "Defend yourself."
     Those words were uttered by the party's founders, Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance) and Huey Newton (Marcus Chong). After watching a peaceful protest led by the Reverend Slocum (Dick Gregory) for a much-needed neighborhood stoplight turn into a police riot, they began to feel that "black folk been praying to God for 400 years. Maybe its time we tried something else."
     That something else turned out to be the Panther Party, which emphasized discipline, self-improvement, feeding the hungry and an end to "police shooting black people like it was going out of style." Initially funded by the heavily marked-up sale of Mao's Little Red Book to Berkeley students, the Panthers, garbed in black leather jackets with rifles at the ready, soon became known for standing up to what they considered to be oppressive authority, and the scenes of their confrontations with "the pigs" are easily the film's most celebratory.
     This attitude did not meet with the approval either of Bay Area law enforcement officials or FBI poobah J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Dysart), who declared the Panthers public enemy No. 1 and proceeded, with the help of a local cop played by Joe Don Baker, to sow discord within the party.
     The FBI's campaign against the Panthers, funneled through a program called COINTELPRO, is in fact confirmed by documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. What is not well-documented, however, is the film's final "JFK"-type contention that a single meeting led to a massive government-Mafia conspiracy to neutralize the black community. Even if this event happened, Van Peebles, directing only his third theatrical feature, lacks the Oliver Stone-type manipulative skills necessary to make it at all plausible.
     If it is strongest in its agitprop attempt to reclaim and potently repackage an important part of recent black history (though the little-seen documentary "The Murder of Fred Hampton" makes similar points to greater effect), "Panther" is weakest in its simplistic treatment of human nature.
     Perhaps fearful that the power and larger truth of their message would be diluted, the filmmakers have allowed hardly any characters, no matter what their skin color, to be multidimensional, and while that may help in terms of propaganda, it hurts in terms of involving drama. But films with political agendas rarely have any use for subtlety, have never cared how they made their points, and there is no reason "Panther" should be any different.


Panther, 1995. R, for strong violence and language. Polygram Filmed Entertainment presents a Working Title production, in association with Tribeca Productions and MVP Films, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Mario Van Peebles. Producers Preston L. Holmes, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Screenplay by Melvin Van Peebles based on his novel. Cinematographer Eddie Pei. Editor Earl Watson. Costumes Paul Simmons. Music Stanley Clarke. Production designer Richard Hoover. Art director Bruce Hill. Set decorator Robert Kensinger. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Kadeem Hardison as Judge. Bokeem Woodine as Tyrone. Joe Don Baker as Brimmer. Courtney B. Vance as Bobby Seale. Tyrin Turner as Cy. Marcus Chong as Huey Newton. Anthony Griffith as Eldridge Cleaver.