'Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' provide pointed lessons for today's revolutionaries

"The Black Panthers"
(Stephen Shames / Polaris)

Imagine if Kevin Moore, the man who recorded the arrest of Freddie Gray, didn’t have a smartphone. It’s hard to say for sure what would’ve happened, but one likely possibility is that witnesses would claim that Gray was mistreated, police would claim that he wasn’t, there would be a brief mention in The Sun and on TV news, no consequences for the officers involved, and most people would forget about it by the following week. Most people—especially those who don’t live in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester or endure the kind of police treatment Gray did—would probably assume the police were telling the truth and they would move on.

As I watched director Stanley Nelson's superb documentary, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," so many images, conflicts, and scenarios reminded me of recent events around the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent #BaltimoreUprising. Its images of helmeted riot police, batons in hand, and defiant African-American men and women with fists in the air could've been taken on the corner of Penn and North over the past couple of weeks. Discussions of factionalism among Party members sound similar to the territorial debates taking place right now among local protest groups. And you can hear echoes of Panther leaders like Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fred Hampton in the oratory of Malik Shabazz, Westley West, and Joseph Kent.

But one key difference—one that makes all the difference in the world—is the extent to which technology, including smartphones and social media, has forced the dirty dealings of law enforcement into the open. In the late '60s, when the Black Panther Party was established, nobody had smartphones. The things that party members endured could not be recorded on the fly the way the arrest of Freddie Gray, the choking of Eric Garner, the shooting of Walter Scott, and the beating of Rodney King were. When the FBI targeted and assassinated Fred Hampton—and the film leaves zero doubt that it was an outright assassination—they were brazen enough to simply storm the house where the charismatic rising Panther leader was sleeping, guns blazing, and shoot him in the head at point blank range. There were no videos of the raid, no instantaneous tweets or Instagram posts. No one was ever held accountable for this egregious abuse of police power.

Using interviews with many party members, including Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge, and Baltimore-based leader Steve McCutchen, as well as historians, informants, and law enforcement officers, Nelson, whose previous films include “Freedom Riders” and “Jonestown,” chronicles every phase of the Panther story. It begins in Oakland, where the Black Panther Party for Self Defense organized armed patrols to follow police and prevent brutality, and ends with the party’s ultimate demise in a haze of conflicts and recriminations. The film documents the Panthers’ appeal in detail, from the previously little-heard message of Black pride and empowerment to its fashion sense: natural hair, berets, leather jackets, and sunglasses. When the organization is on the rise, making everyone from California state legislators to national media figures like David Brinkley look like chumps, it’s hard not to cheer for them. And as you watch the leadership forge alliances with the Young Lords and even a group of poor white Appalachian migrants called the Young Patriots, the viewer is tempted to forget history and root for them to grow into the transformational movement they sought to be.
But the film is perhaps strongest in spelling out the extent of the efforts of the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover, as part of the COINTELPRO operation, to disrupt and destroy the movement, which Hoover described as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” As part of those efforts, the FBI planted informants including Hampton’s personal bodyguard (who supplied information the FBI used to plan the assassination and ultimately committed suicide after acknowledging his role), monitored all Panther communications, created false documents to sow dissent, and encouraged Panther leaders to become drug addicts.

The story, told mostly by eloquent former Panther leaders, is ultimately very sympathetic to the Panthers and is guilty of glossing over some of the movement's more unseemly aspects, like its violence against police and its alliances with criminal enterprises. The viewer is left with the impression of an idealistic organization offering hope and inspiring pride in an African-American community severely lacking in both, a movement that ultimately fell apart largely as a result of illegal government intervention. It's almost certain that the FBI's barely concealed efforts to undermine the Panthers would not be possible today, but today's activists and hopeful revolutionaries would nonetheless be wise to see Nelson's fascinating work. They could benefit from soaking in the earnest passion of its membership—something that seems in woefully short supply among today's more jaded young rabble-rousers—and to learn the extent to which the powers that be have gone to thwart their efforts, even if today's powers are forced to act in more subtly nefarious ways.

"The Black Panthers" screens May 9 at 7:15 p.m. in MICA's Brown Center.