- The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution by Stanley Nelson
We’re not going to fight racism with racism; we’re going to fight racism with solidarity.(Fred Hampton on Racial Unity and Coalition Building)
In The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson offers an enthralling visual representation of the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1973. As writer, producer, and director, Nelson weaves together a collection of interviews, recordings, photos, and other source materials to articulate the complex narrative of Black Panther Party members and activities, which includes contributions to American and global culture, the rising Black cultural and political consciousness, and the dismantling of a movement. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution spotlights the Black Panthers’ social and political transformations to eradicate police brutality, poverty, oppression, White supremacy, and capitalism, as well as to organize and educate as a way to establishing a greater sense of community for the purpose of optimal living. The documentary is organized into 11 scenes, underscoring the founding of the organization in Oakland, the trials of the New York 21, and the raid in Chicago. In addition, it emphasizes the coalition-building efforts and promotion of racial solidarity and multicultural unity characterized by the Free Huey campaign, the role that the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program played in decimating the Black Panthers and other organizations of the Black Power movement, and the Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown electoral races for political office. Other topics explored are the uses of the media, the influence of the Black Panther Party newspaper, sexism in the party, and the dissension of the party. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution employs the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program as a guide to document the Panthers’ commitment to ensure freedom, decent housing, full employment, quality education, justice, peace, and an end to police brutality and violence to all Black and oppressed people. [End Page 187]
The film is put together well technically, visually, and aurally owing to its assemblage of interviews, television/radio footage, still photographs, and a captivating soundtrack from the early 1970s. The depth and magnitude of the documentary are found in the manner in which Nelson presents archival footage alongside interviews with 24 Black Panther Party members, attorneys, journalists, writers, and law enforcement officers, agents, and informants who were on the scene to paint the picture and tell the story of what it was like on the front lines of the movement. Featured prominently throughout the film are Elaine Brown, William Calhoun, Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Sherwin Forte, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Erica Huggins, and Jamal Joseph.
The firsthand accounts described by Panther members provide a portrait of the conditions they experienced and the efforts they made to address the challenges they encountered with issues of violence, racism, police brutality, police corruption, human rights, and civil liberties. Supplementary interviews with Felipe Luciano of the Young Lords and Tom Hayden and Mike Klonsky of the Students for a Democratic Society reinforced the fortitude of the Panthers and their actions to bring about social and political change. Additional interviews with academics assist with contextualizing the triumphs and struggles of the Black Panther Party and the movement they steered. The soundtrack provides a compelling narrative on its own and features songs such as “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” by the Chi-Lites, “Black Is?” by The Last Poets, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, “Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron, and more.
The film is not without its shortcoming. First, for students of Black Panther Party history, much of what the documentary offers is review. Second, Nelson does the expected, which is to focus primarily on the Bay Area with a few thin discussions about New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Viewers are limited to observing the actions of several chapters and will need to seek additional sources to learn about Panther activity in places like Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Portland, Seattle, and other cities.
However, the documentary is an incisive and...