Controversial 'Panther' recalls roots of anger

Reluctantly -- and after much soul-searching -- I took my two boys to see "Panther," Melvin and Mario Van Peebles' fictionalized account of the birth of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966.

The movie has whipped up a storm of controversy since it opened last Wednesday, in part because it portrays the Panthers as idealistic young heroes, while police in Oakland, Calif. and the FBI are shown as murderous thugs.


"So, what'd you think?" I asked after the movie.

"It was great," said the 10-year-old.


"I enjoyed it," said the 14-year-old. "I learned stuff about the Black Panthers and about those times that I didn't know before."

Of course, critics were afraid of this very thing: That young people would "learn" things they never knew before about the Panthers. Critics complain that the movie's stereotypes are not only false, but dangerous.

For instance, one of those stereotypes is the paranoid notion of the government-as-enemy. That kind of thinking may have contributed to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, a terrible act that took the lives of 167 innocent people, including 19 children.

Critics of "Panther" also note that the movie-makers glossed over the personal failings of many leaders of the Black Panther Party.

But director Mario Van Peebles argues that such criticism is invalid. It focuses "too much on the messenger and not the message, as if the possibility that Martin Luther King was a womanizer means that he didn't really have a dream," Mr. Van Peebles said in an interview shortly before the movie opened. "Well, I wanted to make a movie that focused on the Panthers' message, their dream, their idea of bringing power to the people," he said.

The movie's fans embrace that message as fiercely as critics reject it. For instance, my boys and I saw the movie at a screening sponsored by Bethel A.M.E. Church. Bethel has one of the largest, and most distinguished, African American congregations in the city.

"All of our young sisters and brothers need to see this movie," said Rev. Frank Reid 3rd to an audience composed of parents like myself and their children. But I had been reluctant to let my children see the film.

I do applaud the message: That once upon a time young men and women found the courage to stand up against perceived injustice. I even applaud the Panthers' original focus on the social service needs of their community.


Though critics may find the idea offensive, the truth is that most ++ blacks at the time saw police as a foreign, often brutal occupying army. Mr. Van Peebles' movie accurately captures all the hurt and rage that blacks felt during the post-civil rights era. It was if America had declared war on black America, and the time seemed right to to abandon non-violent protest and declare war in return. My oldest son is 14. In 1967, when I was 14, I was readying myself for revolution.

At the same time, I do not feel I was well-served by my anger. For instance, the alumni committee of Macalester College, my alma mater, plans to give me a distinguished citizenship award next month. When I go there, I plan to acknowledge that because of my anger and my self-imposed alienation I did not take full advantage of my college education. Today, I cannot remember the name of a single one of my professors, though I remember secretly admiring several. "I have grown increasingly bitter," I once wrote in a journal I kept in college. "I cannot cope with such bitterness inside me."

So, there you have the dilemma posed by the movie: I do not want to see my sons consumed by this kind of bitterness. Yet it also is important that they understand my anger and where it came from.

Though we are loathe to discuss it publicly, I believe many parents from my generation struggle with the same issue. More importantly, there are far too many teens who struggle against bitterness and anger without parental guidance.

And that's what finally convinced me to take my sons to see "Panther." Anger and fear are part of the black experience. So is learning to overcome that anger and fear. But children won't learn those coping skills unless adults find the courage to teach them how.