The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Over 50 years ago, when the US was seething with racial hatred, police brutality and protest to the Vietnam War, a group of dedicated young black men and women joined together to give the African-American civil rights movement the face of radical, even revolutionary, change. Their story is told by veteran documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson in “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”

Laura's Review: B

If you were around during the tumultuous 1960's, you probably thought of the Black Panthers as an angry, militant group. Director Stanley Nelson ("Freedom Riders") wants to change that perception with his deeply researched yet not quite thorough history "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution." It couldn't be more timely.

Using a typical PBS documentary format, Nelson digs deep, outlining how J. Edgar Hoover and his F.B.I. relaxed prison sentences in order to acquire undercover informants, including one William O'Neal who became charismatic Panther Leader Fred Hampton's head of security while providing the floor plans that would lead to Hampton's death in a Chicago police raid bloodbath, one which was falsely reported to the public.

The genesis of the party, a local community grassroots effort at its start, was intended to support members of the community with such endeavors as observing instances of police harassment (often heavily but legally armed) and providing free breakfasts for Black schoolchildren. The party took off, local headquarters popping up nationwide. Black became proud, powerful and beautiful. Women had a strong role, although Nelson gives voice to many who attest to misogyny among the ranks. Radicals among the group, like Eldridge Cleaver, eventually caused splits. The release of Panther cofounder Huey Newton from prison, an event long called for and much celebrated, turned out to be another death knell when Newton exhibited increasingly violent and bizarre behavior.

The two hour film covers a lot of ground, but skims over the details of Newton's arrest for the death of a police officer as well as the Panthers' relationship with Martin Luther King. Communist Party Leader Angela Davis, who had close ties to the Panthers, is never mentioned.

This, the first feature length documentary on the Panthers, is an invaluable historical record. It will be an eye opener for those with preconceived notions, an audience which unfortunately will be less inclined to seek it out.

Robin's Review: B

My formative teenage years took place during the very period of time that the Black Panthers rise took place. As an idealistic young radical, I was very familiar with the Panthers, their platform and their fight for equal civil rights and admiring their battle for second amendment rights to own and bear arms until their ultimate fall by the hand of J. Edgar Hoover. The icons of the Black Panther Movement – Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie P. Newton and Bobby Seale – were as familiar to me as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden and the rest of the Chicago 7 back in the ‘60s.

Much of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is familiar territory but director Nelson amasses a wealth of archival footage and talking head interviews with the survivors and proponents of the Panther Party. The attention to detail and chronology tell the Panthers’ story in a way that introduces the previously unaware viewer to a positive radical movement that did not just demand their civil rights, the members also implemented programs such as feeding the children of the black communities, ensuring every kid got a good breakfast before school.

This is the story of a group of young black revolutionaries who tried to change the world – or, at least, their part of it. Their meteoric rise was stopped by the efforts of the FBI, then under director-for-life J. Edgar who called the shots. For those familiar with the BPP, the film fills in a lot of the details. For those not, it will be a historic part of America’s history that should be known. My only question is: where was Angela Davis in this whole project? Her lack of presence is an obvious omission by the filmmaker and I wonder: why?