It can be assumed the best way to strike fear in a white man’s heart, is by giving a black man a gun. This is precisely what happened when The Black Panthers boldly marched through the streets, demanding equality, decent housing, and the immediate end of police violence against black people.
Jamal Joseph, who was just 17 years old when he joined the party’s New York chapter, said in the documentary The Black Panthers:Vanguard of The Revolution the Panthers underestimated the response it would receive from the U.S. government. On the contrary Mr. Joseph, it was the government who underestimated the power of the Panthers. Director Stanley Nelson Jr. chronicled the brazen and brilliant rise, the affirming community results, the taxing cost–both mental and emotional– and the party’s self destruction in the nearly two-hour long doc.
Birthed in October 1966 in Oakland, Calif., by the hot-headed Huey P. Newton, and the calmer, but equally passionate Bobby Seale, moviegoers learn there was nothing easy, polite or safe about being a Panther. The group intended to destroy white supremacy and planned to do so sans table manners.
Black men brandishing guns while patrolling police didn’t sit well with the State of California. This sparked California legislators, including then Governor Ronald Regan, to pass the Mulford Bill that placed restrictions on one’s Second Amendment rights. On the day the bill went to the state capital, Panthers, dressed in all black, carrying assault riffles and donning Afros as big as the morning sun walked inside California’s City Hall to protest the bill. With a band of reporters on hand to capture it all the Black Panther Party, and it’s leaders were then cast into the national spotlight.
And while millennials may only know of Panthers because of their commanding presence, being a panther came with a heavy price tag, including prison and even death.
The first Panther to die was the youngest, 17-year-old Bobby Hutton. While cities across the country erupted two days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the party’s third leader Eldridge Cleaver lead little Bobby and 12 other Panthers to ambush Oakland police. The plan proved disastrous and a shootout between the two groups began. The Panthers eventually surrendered and according to Cleaver, when Hutton emerged with his hands in the air, he was shot 12 times. Shortly after Hutton’s death, Newton was convicted of manslaughter in the death of officer John Fey and sent to prison.
And while the party seemed to be crippled at this time, it still managed to thrive with its Free Breakfast Program. Children at different chapters across the country gathered to enjoy eggs, grits and toast for no charge, while FBI director and COINTELPRO creator J. Edgar Hoover deemed the program, and the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and put in place tactics to neutralize and discredit the organization.
Whether this documentary is a formal introduction to the Panthers for some, or a refresher for others, moviegoers will be submerged into a time and a movement that was bigger than its zealous and captivating leaders and members. Nelson dives deep into the Panther 21 (the trial of 21 Panthers arrested and accused of planning bombing of two New York police stations. All 21 members were eventually acquitted) but unfortunately skates over the sexism within the organization.
“We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven,” Elaine Brown, a former Panther said.
The image of Panthers were of black men, however, the organization was largely made up of women. Throughout the film, former female Panthers discussed the misogyny that plagued the organization, which begs the question, did misogyny play a part in the destruction of the BPP?
Attendees will learn it was Emory Douglas who first drew a pig in a police uniform, coining the derogatory term for the boys in blue and they will also be introduced to Chicago’s Fred Hampton; a fiery, galvanizing leader, who with his speeches and conviction gave audiences the strength of Samson, which eventually led to his police assassination.
While Nelson fails to score an interview with Seale, there are ample interviews with well-recognized Panthers such as Elaine Brown, Erica Huggins and Kathleen Cleaver, former wife of Eldridge Cleaver.
The Black Panthers:Vanguard of The Revolution roars with indomitable pride for black people. Similarly where the #BlackLivesMatter movement was birthed after the constant killing of black people and the acquittal of officers, leaders and members of the party were teens and 20-somethings in the ’60s and ’70s who placed their personal lives and gains on hold for the betterment of the people – and they did so despite the cost.
The film showcased the power, intelligence and organizational skills of a pioneering group that was simply “tired of being tired” and tired of injustice. The Panthers, without social media, the Internet, or technology were able to create a syndicate so powerful, it made the U.S. government ill at ease.
And while the party’s demise came from within, The Black Panthers:Vanguard of The Revolution further proves that at any moment, and at any given time, black people are fully capable of uniting for the common good of the people, and doing so unapologetically, boldly and sans table manners.
Shenequa Golding & Darryl Robertson