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2 Panther Docs Ride Again: All Power to the Motion Pictures’ People

Ed Rampell: Armed with firearms and a law book, back in 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale boldly patrolled Oakland’s mean streets, confronting the police over their treatment - or mistreatment - of Blacks.
Black Panthers

25th Annual PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution Film Review

PAFF’s esteemed Executive Director, Ayuko Babu, was a member of the Black Panther Party and imbues the annual filmfest with its high level of political consciousness. This year, two Panther documentaries are being screened: Gregory Everett’s 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers and, for a return engagement, Stanley Nelson’s stand-up-and-cheer 2014 The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

Armed with firearms and a law book, back in 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale boldly patrolled Oakland’s mean streets, confronting the police over their treatment - or mistreatment - of Blacks.

Armed with firearms and a law book, back in 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale boldly patrolled Oakland’s mean streets, confronting the police over their treatment - or mistreatment - of Blacks. Insisting on their second amendment right to bear arms and that the so-called “pigs” must obey the letter of the law when interacting with African Americans, their brazen, in-your-snout defiance set Huey, Bobby and their followers on a collision course with not only the Oakland Police Department, but the FBI, the Nixon administration and COINTELPRO.

As what the New Left called “AmeriKKKa” continues, remarkably, to grapple half a century later with ongoing police brutality plus vigilante violence against Blacks, filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution reminds us that it was precisely this excessive use of force by lawless officers of the law that gave birth to what was originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Nelson’s rousing 116 minute documentary also chronicles the war unleashed by local and federal law enforcement against the Panthers, triggering raids and shootouts at their headquarters in cities across the nation and the gunning down of cadres, from Little Bobby Hutton in the Bay Area to charismatic leader Fred Hampton in Chicago.

Vanguard is told through exciting news clips and archival footage plus original interviews with BPP stalwarts who somehow managed to survive, such as Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins. Other interviewees include the late Civil Rights activist Julian Bond, defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt plus former SDS leader and Seale’s recently deceased Chicago 8 co-defendant Tom Hayden. Vanguard also documents much more about the militant organization that captured the world’s attention. Nelson’s nonfiction film reveals the party’s spectacularly stunning stunts, such as marching into the Sacramento State Capitol bearing arms, outraging Gov. Ronald Reagan. There’s that strident rhetoric, with sizzling sixties slogans such as “Off the pig!” and “All power to the people!”

Cadres had a photogenic stylish fashion sense - who could ever forget those cool black leather jackets and berets? Or Douglas’ provocative art rendered in posters and the Panthers’ newspaper aimed at inspiring readers to commit radical acts of resistance? Then there’s the revolutionary politics, which transcended narrow “pork chop” nationalism with a mixture of anti-imperialism linking the Black liberation struggle to anti-colonial movements around the world with a class consciousness that advocated unity with progressive whites.

Nelson, the chronicler of a cause, also portrays the other side of a party that may have often been driven underground by the racist powers-that-be but was motivated by a desire to serve the people: The Panthers’ free breakfast program for poor children (accompanied, admittedly, by heavy doses of indoctrination); the sickle cell anemia screening and awareness which Nelson reminds us the Panthers pioneered; and Bobby Seale’s quixotic 1973 run in Oakland’s mayoral race, wherein the former political prisoner and eighth member of the Chicago “7” defied expectations, finishing second in a nine-person race. (Alas, Seale - who survived the maelstrom hurled against the Panthers - is not interviewed for Vanguard per se, although the ex-BPP chairman is seen in period footage during the party’s heyday.)

Vanguard, however, is no whitewashing of an ultraleft organization awash in the cult of revolutionary violence - and of personality. Nelson depicts, although he doesn’t dwell upon, the factionalism of Trotsky vs. Stalin proportions that pitted Panther against Panther, as J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (the FBI’s counterinsurgency program designed to splinter the Communist Party and then the New Left) stirred the pot behind the scenes through surveillance plus a network of paid off informers and agents provocateur. This reached its apotheosis with the faction fight between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, after the convicted rapist, Soul On Ice author and BPP Minister of Information fled to Algeria. Unfortunately, Vanguard doesn’t go into enough detail about this split between the party’s domestic and overseas wings.

Arguably most of the violence the Panthers’ were involved with was forced upon them, as the party was hounded from the start by the Oakland and then other city police forces, the FBI and a Nixon White House seemingly bent on its extermination. To be sure, in the course of human events when revolution emerges, violence often plays a role - from America in 1776 when the shot heard ’round the world was fired to France’s guillotines of 1789 to the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and so on. But the Black Panther Party literally jumped the gun, shooting it out when, with probably no more than a few thousand cadres nationwide at any given time, they were clearly outgunned.

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Having a convicted rapist as a national leader was a dubious proposition, as was Newton’s daft notion of “revolutionary suicide.” Nevertheless, while the Panthers’ overt militancy may have led to their downfall, the militants’ brazen bravado may very well be what they are best remembered - and beloved - for. Vanguard definitely has numerous stand-up-and-cheer moments - during a Pan African Film Festival screening, this reviewer sat near Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, who viscerally enjoyed himself, enthusiastically reacting during the viewing.

Vanguard is essential viewing for anyone interested in the Black liberation fight and New Left of the 1960s/70s. With this latest installment of his ongoing reportage, Stanley Nelson is keeping his eyes on the motion picture prize. The Emmy-award winning Nelson shows himself once again to be the documentarian par exemplar of the African American struggle for human rights and social justice. “Vanguard” is Nelson’s latest contribution to an awe-inspiring, glowing body of work that has already chronicled Black nationalist Marcus Garvey with a 2000 nonfiction film and the Civil Rights movement with the stellar documentaries 2010’s Freedom Riders and 2014’s Freedom Summer. What’s next for this great filmmaker - the saga of the Black Lives Matter? Actually, Nelson’s 2017 Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is having its West Coast premiere at this year’s PAFF. Nelson is to the African American cause what Kino Pravda filmmaker Dziga Vertov was to the Russian Revolution and Ken Burns is to Americana.

Like Straight Outta Compton, which denounces police brutality in that other California community in the 1980s, Vanguard exposes police excessive use of force in the Oakland of the 1960s. As such, like Straight Outta Compton, Vanguard remains, unfortunately, extremely timely and of the moment. While police violence against African Americans hasn’t improved in the past half century, technology has changed. One wonders: If Huey patrolled the “pigs” today to make sure they did not violate citizens’ rights and were held accountable for their misdeeds, would he carry a cell phone instead of a rifle? Nelson reminds us that, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, “political power also grows out of the barrel of a camera lens.”

The Pan African Film Festival is screening The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution 6:20 p.m., Feb. 13 at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Cinemas 15 (formerly RAVE Cinema), Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3650 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90008.

Black Panthers

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers Film Review

41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, which is as exciting as any Hollywood shoot-’em-up, won PAFF’s Audience Favorite Award Documentary in 2010. The award was presented by actress CCH Pounder who, fittingly, plays the wife of the indigenous inhabitants’ chief in the anti-colonial sci fi blockbuster Avatar. 41st & Central is directed by Gregory Everett, son of ex-Panther Jeffrey Everett, who is among the doc’s interviewees providing eyewitness accounts, along with Panther icons Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins and longtime political prisoner Geronimo Pratt (aka Geronimo Ji Jaga). The 130 minute 2009 film is a riveting saga of the creation of the Panthers at Oakland and the Black Power organization’s spread to Southern California, with the formation of what was arguably the Party’s most militant chapter at L.A. by ex-con Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins. The doc recounts the socialist-oriented Panthers’ clash with the so-called “pork chop” cultural nationalists of Ron Karenga’s US Organization, which apparently led to the 1968 shootings of Carter and Huggins at UCLA.

The film’s title refers to the climactic shoot-out between LAPD and Panthers at their L.A. HQ at 41st and Central in the ’hood. One of the survivors of the tense confrontation declares onscreen that during this violent five or so hour standoff he never felt freer, as he was a Black man deciding who would and would not enter the Panther office, which was even aerial bombed during the armed clash. While 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers is indeed a story about heroic resistance, it’s also a cautionary tale about reckless bravado and an implicit critique of the Panthers’ philosophy of what Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton dubbed “revolutionary suicide”: In revolution, the goal is to kill your enemy, not get killed. In any case, after PAFF’s screening the onscreen events – plus the plight of African Americans today – was discussed by a historic panel that included ex-Panthers, a US Organization representative and ex-LAPD Police Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks -- whom L.A. leftists accused of police brutality during the 2000 Democratic Convention, when unprovoked LAPD riot police attacked unarmed demonstrators after a Rage Against the Machine outdoor concert. So “off the pig!” remains a relevant slogan for contemporary Angelenos, as it did for the Panther branch even Huey found too hot to handle, purging them from the BPP circa 1970.

The Pan African Film Festival is screening 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers 8:30 p.m., Feb. 15 at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Cinemas 15 (formerly RAVE Cinema), Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3650 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90008.

The Pan African Film Festival is screening Stanley Nelson’s Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities 8:05 p.m., Feb. 10 and 9:00 p.m., Feb. 19 at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Cinemas 15 (formerly RAVE Cinema), Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3650 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90008.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell