The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (15) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir: Stanley Nelson, US, 2015,116 mins

Cast: Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Ericka Huggins, Jamal Joseph

Change. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, were amongst the instruments of change in 1960’s America for human rights and giving strength to the black community. They were the firing pin in arms, the shields of protection for their community and the barrel people looked through to see the revolution possible for the future.

It started in Oakland, California in 1966; the brutality, carnage and torment described and displayed via the archival footage is heart wrenching and bold. A beautiful opening animation is used to portray the many faces of the Black Panther Party you think you already know, but this documentary showed you it all.  “All the dead n*****s are dead n*****s”, they came to their boiling point of suffering for the injustice, brutality and prejudice they faced daily. No more. It was time to truly be free.

The chapters reflect upon the Vietnam War, the incarceration of original founding member Huey Newton, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the Presidents of the United States that were hell bent against and in favour of change in the US. Huey Newton studied law, and brought about the image often portrayed of “nuts with guns”. He knew the law and the fight to bear arms was theirs, so they took it. He came out guns a blazing, but with bullets of knowledge and, as clichéd as it sounds, knowledge is power, and he propelled the Black Panthers to a place of notoriety. A USP feature which got the movement noticed, which shouted louder than a voice over a microphone, for the first time in possibly forever, the police force were intimidated into sedation.

The party soon formed a triage of personalities, spearheading the movement. At the forefront is Newton, young and hot headed. Bobby the thinker, the negotiator. Lastly the celebrity Eldridge Cleaver, a writer. The sequence of events that followed throughout time brought death, Algerian asylum and even slave humour, the situation was that horrific. Hope was shaken after the killing of Martin Luther King in 1968, in the eyes of many this killed the chances of peace. This act of public violence is reportedly to be at the hands of the FBI; there wouldn’t be a black history documentary made of the 1960s in America without pulling in the toxic, paranoid Edgar Hoover effect. Now that the FBI files have been released to the public, their impact on the destruction of the Black Panthers is a matter of public record.

The blockbuster movie Panther (1995) was my first eye opener to the power these young men and women had to enforce change. Now 20 years on from this the first feature length documentary has been brought to life via the hands of Emmy Award winning Stanley Nelson. There is an exceptional line-up of reputable Panthers, attorneys, police officers and journalists who made themselves available to take part in this film, including John Dunbar who gives a picturesque account of the events which spanned over a decade of feuds, fighting and death. The story is told from the beginning to modern day, even taking into account historians’ accounts on the events which occurred. Footage owned by members themselves was donated to be featured in the film.

The director himself acknowledges the parallels which still run in modern day to what was identified in the film. One can only empathise with their struggle, when influential members of the government spout sentences to the media, when questioned on the importance of justice: “justice is merely incidental to law and order”. In 1960s America, that was a truly chilling statement. A powerful film, showing power is in the people.

Review by Jennifer Chuks