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Van Peebles' "Panther" revisits '60s idealism


The pivotal scene in Mario Van Peebles' new movie, "Panther," takes place on a gangster's yacht. The film shows a clandestine meeting between representatives of the mob and the FBI, with both sides looking like mirror images of each other -- well-dressed and hard-eyed and oozing slime from every pore.

Sipping martinis, the gangsters and the feds calmly agree to launch their "ultimate contingency," a plan to allow the mob to flood the black community with heroin.

"Panther," which opens in Baltimore next Wednesday, is a classic good guys vs. bad guys movie.

The young men and women of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense are the good guys. They are young and clean-cut and full of idealism. They provide free breakfasts for inner city school children. They help old ladies across busy intersections. They do everything they can to keep drugs out of their community.

The bad guys in this movie are the stone-faced members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Oakland, Calif., police department. The bad guys gun down small children. They beat old women with night sticks. The mission of the law enforcement officers, according to the movie, is to destroy the Black Panther Party and keep black communities "medicated" on drugs. A controversial portrayal? You bet. But Mr. Van Peebles insists that his fictionalized account of that era holds an important message for today's youth.

"As we researched this film, we talked to police officers who said there was no way that that amount of drugs and weapons could enter the country without the cooperation of authorities," he says. "And I believe there is a method to this madness. Once significant members of the community are on drugs. . . They don't think about education. They don't think about civil rights. They don't think politically and they definitely don't join something like a Black Panther Party."

We met in Washington last week where Mr. Van Peebles was promoting both his movie and this weekend's Community Rally and Youth Conference in Washington, sponsored by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. Organizers hope the conference and the new film will reawaken the kind of spirit that moved the Black Panthers.

Mr. Van Peebles compares his movie to Oliver Stone's "JFK," a controversial 1991 drama which blends fact with speculation to suggest that there was a highly-placed conspiracy to assassinate the president. But "Panther" made me think of "Camelot," the magical 1960s musical about King Arthur and his knights that seemed to capture the spirit of John F. Kennedy's America.

Like Mr. Van Peebles, I remember the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of idealism and hope in the black community, and the Black Panthers were our knights in shining armor. When the Justice Department made good on Attorney General John Mitchell's threat to destroy the Panthers, something seemed to die in the black community as well; a vigor and optimism was lost that has never been revived.

"You have to remember that the Panthers were all very young and very idealistic," says Mr. Van Peebles. "And, in a way, they were somewhat naive. The Panthers really believed they could make a difference. And they had no idea that the Justice Department would come down on them the way they did."

David Hilliard, 52, once served as chief of staff of the Black Panther Party. He says one of the goals of this weekend's youth conference is to try to reawaken the lost spirit of the 1960s. The conference poses an intriguing question: What happened to black youth in the absence of the Black Panther Party?

"There has been an absolute negation in the mainstream media of anything positive from the 1960s," says Mr. Hilliard. "And our youth, left to their own devices, engaged in fratricidal warfare. They lost all respect for each other. They reduced women to a four-letter word. The Panthers was an organization of young men and women who dared to take the destiny of their community into their own hands."

Many may quarrel with Mr. Van Peebles' portrait of Panthers as innocents. But "Camelot" was a myth that our nation once sorely needed. I believe we need a myth like "Panther" just as much today.

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