Stanley Nelson’s documentary film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” shows a lot more about the Black Panthers than you may expect. To be frank with you, I once regarded the Black Panthers as nothing but a pesky and violent political organization in US during the 1960-70s thanks to a certain cartoonish scene in “Forrest Gump” (1994), but the documentary considerably changed my misguided opinion on the Black Panthers along with Tanya Hamilton’s overlooked feature film “Night Catches Us” (2010), and it is still worthwhile to watch considering how racial injustice remains as a serious social issue in the American society even at this point.
During the early part, the documentary gives us the overview on the establishment of the Black Panthers in the early 1960s. Founded by Huey P. Newton and several other colleagues of his including Bobby Seal in Oakland, California, the Black Panthers was initially a small local African American organization influenced a lot by the Civil Rights Movement and the following social backlash, and several former members gladly tell us about how they and other members functioned as a sort of local vigilantes against the police abuse and brutality on their African American neighbors. As they grew bigger and more influential under Newton’s leadership, they drew more attention from the public and the media, and then there came a breakthrough when they successfully interrupted the outdoor press conference of California governor Ronald Reagan in Sacramento, California in 1967.
After that point, the Black Panthers was spread more all over the country during next few years, and the organization was further fueled by more anger from millions of African Americans after the killings of several notable activists including Dr. Martin Luther Jr. It looked like they really needed more aggressive tactics for freedom and civil equality, and their forceful public images were further accentuated by their distinctively militarized attires.
Of course, those powerful people in the US government were naturally alarmed more about the quick rise of the Black Panthers. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his agents had been quite watchful about any possibility of another ‘black messiah’ as influential as Dr. King, and they were ready to stomp on any potential target. First, they arrested and then sent Newton to prison, and they also put Seale on that infamous trial of the Chicago 7 even though he did not have any direct connection with the Chicago 7 except that he simply happened to be around them for his own purpose.
Nevertheless, the leaders and members of the Black Panthers tried their best for not only fighting against the system but also helping their African American neighbors. While it has been mostly remembered for its militarized appearance, the members of the Black Panthers also paid lots of attention to the social welfare of those numerous African American communities, and they even provided free food and education for more support and solidarity.
While the Black Panthers reached to its peak period in 1969, there came a young charismatic figure who could have done a lot more if it were not for his tragic early death, and that person in question is Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. As a natural charismatic leader of sheer charisma and eloquence, he always galvanized and inspired others around him whenever he gave those big speeches, and it did not take much time for him to be targeted by Hoover and FBI.
If you saw Shaka King’s recent Oscar-winning film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), you surely know well what happened next. Hampton’s personal bodyguard Bill O’Neal was actually an FBI informant, and he helped FBI and the Chicago police ambush upon Hampton and his colleagues including his wife at one night. Hampton’s wife still vividly remembers that dreadful night which ended with his death, and a number of archival photographs show us how brutally they and other Black Panthers members were attacked at that time.
And that was just one of many political blows thrown upon the Black Panthers by FBI and the Police. Around the 1970s, the Black Panthers started to be imploded inside due to the growing conflict between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who was another key leader of the organization but then had to leave the country when he might be arrested and then imprisoned just like Newton. As they came to conflict more with each other, FBI gladly used more insidious tactics for more conflicts and divisions inside the Black Panthers, and the organization eventually came to lose its prominent social/political influence when Newton and Cleaver finally decided to go each own way without never looking back. As these two figures went downhill, Seale tried to re-ignite the organization while going back to its root via his bold attempt on the mayoral election in Oakland, but, sadly, that turned out to be the last glorious moment for the organization.
On the whole, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is both informative and enlightening in the solid presentation of its main subject, and Nelson, who recently made “Attica” (2021), did a commendable job of mixing various archival records and interview clips to convey to us the historical significance of the Black Panthers. As many of you know, their social issues still matter, and that surely makes this documentary as fresh and relevant as before.