‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’ will be screened on Friday, Oct. 2, in San Francisco at the Opera Plaza Theater, in Berkeley at the Shattuck Theater and in San Rafael at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center; the Oakland screening is Saturday, Oct. 3, 1 p.m., at the Piedmont Theater, 4186 Piedmont Ave., at Linda, Oakland, followed by Q&A with Stanley Nelson and former Oakland Panther Steve McCutchen, hosted by the Bay View and Block Report’s own People’s Minister of Information JR
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson talks about his new documentary, “Black Panther: Vanguard of the Revolution,” and the controversy around his depiction of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton.
Film review by The People’s Minister of Information JR
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” by Stanley Nelson is a documentary about a Black revolutionary organization in a revolutionary time. It is one of the best documentaries that I have ever seen that intends to tell the history of an organization that shook the world and fundamentally changed the way that Black people in the United States look at themselves.
“There’s an old story and it is used in various cultures, where a group of blind men approach an elephant and try to describe it. The first man approaches the elephant, touches its side and says, ‘It feels like a wall.’ The next man touches the tusk and says, ‘The elephant must be like a spear.’ Another blind man touches the trunk and says, ‘It feels like a snake.’
“And that is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party. We know the Party that we were in, and not the entire thing. We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy; it was complex,” says Black Panther veteran Ericka Huggins in the opening scene to this informative, culturally rich and political documentary.
“This was a revolutionary time. Fifty countries in the world gained their independence in the decade before the founding of the Black Panther Party. This is the time when people are getting drafted to go and fight in Vietnam. So if somebody is coming saying, ‘If you’re gonna fight, why not fight right here in LA or Oakland,’ you know that made a lot of sense,” said historian Clayborne Carson.
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” documents pieces of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, and strives to put them into context with other Black organizations, multi-ethnic movements and leaders of the time. Interviews with a number of police officers from around the country, as well as with a police informant, are captured, discussing their feelings and duties at the time.
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” by Stanley Nelson is a documentary about a Black revolutionary organization in a revolutionary time.
“You tell all them white folks in Mississippi that all the scared niggaz are dead. We want Black Power,” yelled Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Touré, as he stood right next to Martin Luther King Jr. at a demonstration in one of the collages of archival footage that was played in the documentary. This added context to the era the Black Panther Party was birthed into and operated with.
“There was absolutely no difference in how the police treated us in Mississippi than they did in California. They may not have called you nigger every day, but they treated you in the same way they did in Mississippi,” said Black Panther veteran and leader of the Lumpen singing group William Calhoun.
“The police’ll jump on you, beat you up, put the gun to your head. This is what we were going through on a daily basis,” said 41st and Central survivor and Panther veteran Wayne Pharr.
One thing that I loved about this documentary was that it told a piece of the story of the Panthers from the perspectives of a number of the major leaders, including Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, Emory Douglas, Fred Hampton and others, but it also told the history from the perspectives of the rank and file members – people like the Freeman brothers, William Calhoun, Wayne Pharr, Steve McClutchen, Tarika Lewis, Blair Anderson, Jamal Joseph, Landon Williams and others.
I have read critiques that have complained that Bunchy Carter’s contributions were not documented in the film, but the question that comes to mind immediately is, how long do the critics think the already two-hour biopic should be? Field Marshall George Jackson was not mentioned either and his contributions were also immeasurable to the Party and national prison movement.
In my opinion if we want to complain, we should put together a series that lasts at least 15 episodes that attempts to tell the history of one of the baddest Black organizations to fight for freedom in this country’s history.
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” documents pieces of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, and strives to put them into context with other Black organizations, multi-ethnic movements and leaders of the time.
“We use the Black Panther as our symbol because the nature of a Panther is a Panther doesn’t strike anyone. When he is assailed upon, he’ll back up first, but if the aggressor continues, then he’ll strike out,” said Panther co-founder and Minister of Defense Huey P. Newton.
“Huey said that we are going to carry our guns, and we’re gonna follow the police. And if they stop someone, we’re gonna stop. We’re gonna maintain a legal distance and we’re gonna observe these so-called law officers in performance of their duties,” said Panther veteran Elbert “Big Man” Howard.
Very few documentaries on the Panthers take you through major events in Panther history like the May 2, 1967, armed protest of the Mulford Bill at the California State Capitol, the shooting that left one police officer dead and Huey Newton and another officer wounded on Oct. 28, 1967, in West Oakland, the Free Huey Campaign, the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, and the assassination of Lil Bobby Hutton on April 6, 1968.
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” talked a little bit about the birth of the International Section of the Black Panther Party, the April 2, 1969, arrest of 21 members of the Panthers’ New York leadership, as well as the Chicago 8 Trial, the assassination of Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton of the Illinois Chapter on Dec. 4, 1969, and the shootout on 41st and Central in LA four days later, where three officers got wounded and a SWAT team was employed for the first time.
“No one would do anything until a policeman ejected a round in the chamber, and all up and down the street you could hear clack-clack-clack-clack. We referred to ourselves as the vanguard, and we were setting by example a new course that we wanted the entire community to follow,” said Panther veteran Sherwin Forte.
“The Black Panther Party for Self Defense calls on the American people in general and Black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature, which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless, and at the very same time racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of Black people,” said cofounder of the Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale on the lawn of the California capitol while holding an armed protest against the Mulford Act.
Gov. Ronald Reagan responded in the press later that day with, “I don’t think that loaded guns is the way to solve a problem that should be solved between people of good will. And anyone who would approve of this kind of demonstration must be out of their minds.”
This is from a governor who was in office during the Vietnam War and who would later become president and be involved in one of the most violent times in recent world history: the Iran Contra Scandal, which also included the cocaine explosion in California and the counter-revolutions against the peoples of El Salvador and Nicaragua.
“Our attack was not only against white supremacy, but it was also about capitalism. We actually thought that the way in which capitalism created a working class that was kept absolutely destitute, that was wrong,” said Panther veteran Phyllis Jackson.
“We were not after the church folks; we were not after the Muslim folks. We wanted the brother on the corner, the brother who is getting his head banged in every weekend by the police. We wanted the brother who was going to jail, just snatched out of his car for a traffic ticket ‘cause he was Black. That’s who we were after,” said Panther veteran William Calhoun.
“The Black Panther Party demands that Huey P. Newton be set free. And we wish to make it very clear that if he is not set free, there is little hope of avoiding open armed war in the streets of California and sweeping across the nation,” said Black Panther Party Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver into an interviewer’s microphone.
“If you were a young Black man living in the city anywhere, you wanted to be like this. You wanted to dress like this. You wanted to act like this. You wanted to talk like this. You wanted to be this,” said Julian Bond of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee during a television interview.
In an indirect way, “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” did show how the Panthers were advocating and fighting a socio-political and economic revolution, while at the same time spearheading the cultural Black is Beautiful Movement in the country. Both were essential for the psychology of Black people and the country alike.
“This brotha here and myself were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this. The reason for it, you might say, is like a new awareness among Black people that their own natural appearance, physical appearance, is beautiful. Black people are aware now. They’re proud of it. It is pleasing to them. Dig it? Isn’t it beautiful? All right,” said former Panther spokeswoman Kathleen Cleaver.
“It was Huey and Bobby’s idea to draw a pig drawing that would symbolize the police. So the first pig I did was on four hooves. It just came to me one night, why don’t I just stand it up on two hooves and put a bandelier, gun, holster and badge and the flies around it, and that became the symbol, icon of the pig. It took on a life of its own,” said Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas.
In an indirect way, “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” did show how the Panthers were advocating and fighting a socio-political and economic revolution, while at the same time spearheading the cultural Black is Beautiful Movement in the country.
Also a number of Panther songs were used to score this documentary, including “The Revolution Has Come, Off the Pigz, Time to Pick Up the Guns, Off the Pigz,” “Gun, Pick Up the Gun, Pick Up the Gun, and Put the Pigs on the Run, Pick Up the Gun,” “Black Is Beautiful, Free Huey! Set Our Warrrior Free! Free Huey!” and more.
Los Angeles Police officer Pat McKinley provided the most colorful example of the changing culture within the Los Angeles Black community: “I was a sergeant patrolling the projects, and there was the cutest little girl, so I stopped to say hello. And I said, ‘Hi, honey, how’re you doing today?’ She looked at me and said ‘Fuck you, pig.’ And I thought, ‘We have lost it, man. We flat lost it.’”
Major white stars in Hollywood were moved by the actions and politics of the Panthers, including actress Jane Fonda and actor Marlon Brando.
“That could’ve been my son lying there, and I’m going to do as much as I can. I’m going to start right now to inform white people of what they don’t know,” said Marlon Brando at Lil’ Bobby Hutton’s funeral.
“J. Edgar Hoover saw any form of Black organizing as a threat to the status quo as he saw it. Change that would’ve involved equality, that would’ve put power in Black people’s hands was very much a threat to Hoover. He started something called COINTELPRO, directed against what he called Black nationalist hate groups,” said white attorney Jeff Hass.
According to the document that Hoover distributed to all of the FBI offices around the nation, “The purpose of this new counter-intelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists.”
“Two hundred forty-five out of 290 COINTELPRO actions were against the Black Panthers. One of the mandates was ‘Do not make this program public. Do not tell anybody that it exists,’” continued Haas.
Another battle in this war was the Panther 21 case, which started on April 2, 1969. After a 13 month trial, the jury deliberated for three hours and announced the verdict of not guilty on all 156 charges. The Panther 21 trial was the longest criminal proceeding in New York state history at the time. The defendants faced over 360 years in prison collectively.
In 1968, Bobby Seale was invited by Students for a Democratic Society organizer Tom Hayden to speak at the rally protesting the Democratic Convention in Chicago. After Seale had spoken and left, a rebellion broke out. The FBI later had him arrested for the speech. The judge would not postpone the trial, in ‘69, for Seale’s lawyer to be present, so Seale demanded to represent himself. The judge refused and had him gagged and handcuffed to a chair in the courtroom of the highly publicized Chicago 8 trial.
Right outside of the trial, the mainstream national media got its first dose of the 20-year-old master orator known in the Party as the deputy chairman of the Illinois Chapter, Fred Hampton.
“I just want to tell you that the chairman of the Black Panther Party is going to be ungagged, and they’re going to have to take those chains off of him. Bobby Seale is going through all types of physical and mental torture, but that’s all right because we said even before this happened, and we’re going to say it after I’m locked up, that you can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail revolution,” proclaimed Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton.
Hampton was already a veteran organizer in Chicago, who at the age of 17 led the youth wing of the NAACP. He was also famous for organizing alongside the Black P. Stones, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords.
“The coalition that Fred was building in Chicago represented the Latinos, the poor whites and poor Blacks – but also he had been in the NAACP. He had linkages with folks who were in the congregations, church folks, and with working folks. So Fred was building a broad based coalition in Chicago, and that was the threat,” said Panther veteran Landon Williams.
“We said even before this happened, and we’re going to say it after I’m locked up, that you can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail revolution,” proclaimed Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton.
The day before he was assassinated, on Dec. 3, 1969, Fred Hampton spoke at the People’s Church in Chicago: “I don’t believe I’m gonna die in a car wreck. I don’t believe I’m gonna die from slipping on a piece of ice. I don’t believe I’m gonna die because I got a bad heart. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”
“I routinely supplied whatever floor plans and diagrams that I could to the FBI; that started in June 1969. They had a floor plan and keys to the Black Panther headquarters,” stated FBI informant William O’Neal, who received a $300 bonus for giving the FBI information that they needed to successfully carry out the assassination of Fred Hampton.
“One of the executive orders of the Panther Party was that we was to defend ourselves from unwanted attacks, to not allow the police to forcibly come,” said Los Angeles Panther Ronald Freeman. Four days after the assassination of Deputy Chairman Fred, the Los Angeles chapter was tested. Not one Panther died in the police attack on the Panther office on 41st and Central.
“I felt free. I felt absolutely free. I was a free negro. I was making my own rules. You couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get out. But in my space, I was the king. In that little space I had, I was the king, and that’s what I felt,” said LA Panther Wayne Pharr who survived and helped to repel the police attack on the 41st and Central office.
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” also talks about the major, FBI exploited feud between Black Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. I don’t feel like the film did enough to discuss both men’s genius and value to the Party.
“We have a breakfast for children program, you know? But that’s not what the Black Panther Party is all about, you see? I don’t agree with saying that the Black Panther Party supports breakfast for children and that’s what we’re all about. Don’t talk about these other things. The Black Panther Party is for overthrowing the government,” stated Eldridge Cleaver.
“We know they are not revolutionary programs. At best, they’re survival programs. We know that the people are in jeopardy of genocide, and if they don’t survive, it won’t be possible to bring about revolution,” proclaimed Huey P. Newton.
A major omission of this documentary is that it failed to make clear how the FBI and other government agencies’ intelligence programs literally killed the Party by intentionally creating a fratricidal environment through murder, lies and deception. The demise of this great organization cannot be blamed on unsuspecting individuals. If you follow the money, the planning and resources, the path leads ultimately to the White House.
Even though I have a few criticisms and I would have told some of the stories differently, this documentary is the best documentary that I have seen that attempted to chip away at the history of the whole organization since Lee Lew Lee’s “All Power to the People.”
“Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is a necessary tool that I will be using to teach the young people around me who want to know about this great and glorious organization. I encourage you to do the same.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to an Oct. 2 interview with Stanley Nelson by Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir at http://tobtr.com/s/7914927.
Dir: Stanley Nelson