The images in Stanley Nelson Jr.’s recent documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, are vatic scenes that immediately bring to mind the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. The sole exception is that the people fighting against the police were armed, not with improvised incendiary devices or stones, but rather with firearms. We see repurposed US Army APC’s from the war in Indo-China and police units armed with assault rifles, chemical weapons, and flak jackets. Not so different is our current historical moment when the military hardware used against working and oppressed people in Afghanistan and Iraq (amongst other locations in the Middle East and Horn of Africa) are brought to bear on those same groups “at home.”
While Nelson’s film is by no means a clarion call directly referencing the ongoing tensions between the state (embodied by the police) and the exploited, oppressed layers of this society (personified, more often than not, by Black folks), it is particularly compelling given the current state of affairs in this country. Through series of interviews with former Black Panthers, people who were on the fringes of the organization, police officers, FBI agents, as well as noted historians and cultural critics, Black Panthers demonstrates the power of ideas in politics. Furthermore, it offers a cautionary tale regarding a method of struggle for social transformation – the method of armed self-defense – and the internal chaos which contributed to the eventual demise of the Black Panthers.
The film’s narrative begins in the early 1960s, when Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, along with some other men, began to notice and subsequently protest the ill treatment of Afro-American communities in the Bay Area, California. The object of their protests, no doubt, was the police. Armed with the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, these men initiated a campaign of sorts, to monitor the police in the course of their duties, all whilst possessing loaded firearms. We see moving images of the early Panthers confronting police abuses and debating state officials in courthouses, all the while, with arms – with the tacit threat of self-defense.
The film’s narrative shifts when the Panthers were demonstrating against the 1967 passage of the Mulford Act. Signed by then California governor Ronald Reagan, the Act prohibited the individuals from carrying loaded firearms in public. The legislation was of course cooked up specifically as a way to nip the embryonic political formation of the Panthers in the bud. The documentary then depicts a scene where Ronald Reagan was entertaining some children while the Panthers held a demonstration in a park across the street. Once the news media noticed the presence of the Black Panthers, they rushed past Reagan and his event to speak with the Panthers. According to Nelson, it was from this point on that the Panthers began to gain recognition for their political program beyond the confines of California.
Nelson takes us on a journey, showed through archival footage (from both “official” sources and from the Panthers themselves), demonstrating the rapid growth and influence of the Black Panther Party between the late 1960s and 1970s. With such a meteoric rise in cultural and political capital, Black Panther chapters began to crop up across the United States. And in addition to the importance placed on wielding firearms, Black Panthers also interrogates the development of the children’s food programs, and to a lesser extent, their well-known medical clinics, which provided free medical services to members of the communities in which they operated.
This emergent political and cultural impetus, much of which occurred while Huey Newton was incarcerated for allegedly killing a cop, lead to two things, according to Nelson. Firstly, the development of a cult of personality around Huey Newton, and secondly, a large, untested, untrained, and inevitably politically diffused cadre. Black Panthers sets these issues as a framework through which one can comprehend the dissolution of the organization due to internal tensions. However, prior to delving into the deformation of the Black Panther Party, Nelson’s documentary examines the development of various elements of the party.
The creation of its international wing, led by Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver (after they fled to Algeria in the aftermath of an abortive attempt at armed engagement with the police, which left a young Black Panther, Bobby Hutton, shot dead in the street – at the time unarmed and with his hands raised above his head) was presented as a major facet of the Black Panthers’ political development. Similarly featured was the growth of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, led by the charismatic Fred Hampton. We see images of Hampton and members of his Black Panthers chapter meeting with White “rednecks” and workers in an effort to combat police oppression and social subjugation.
It is from this point in Nelson’s Black Panthers that we begin to see how the rampant external assault on the organization, in conjunction with deep political and social frictions internally, consigned the Panthers to dissolution. The external assault came in the form of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, a disproportionate amount of which was directed at the Black Panthers. The most notorious operation was the joint FBI-Chicago PD raid on a Black Panthers headquarters where they summarily executed Fred Hampton and others in a predawn raid. In addition to COINTELPRO at the federal level, the city of Los Angeles developed SWAT teams due to the prevalence and increasing social-political power wielded by the Panthers. These developments along with internal frictions lead to the ultimate demise of the organization. It is at this point that the film obfuscates and elides quite a few issues to help us understand how and why the Panthers dissolved in such spectacular fashion.
The sexism in the party is only briefly mentioned explicitly in the film, even though it was rampant within the organization. One of the interviewees even went so far as to say that initially (when the Panthers first formed) they were watching the cops as well as the “neighborhood girls.” The problem of gendered divisions of labor was “remedied” by giving women the gun, and having men work in the daycare centers and food distribution programs. This of course was not a panacea, but a stop-gap in order to maintain portions of the female cadre. Huey Newton’s sexism and abuse of his partner, Gwen Fontaine, only appear as an addendum towards the end of the film. The internal misogynistic and chauvinistic character of the Panthers is not suitably dealt with in the film, though we get nuggets of what it would have been like for women in the organization.
On the political front, the film fails to critically engage the problem of Maoism and Fanonian thought as some of the ideological foundations for the organization. The Maoist sentiment is tacitly displayed throughout the film, seen in the slogans of “people’s war,” “all power to the people,” “the revolution has come, it’s time to pick up the gun,” and “off the pigs.” The Fanonian aspect of the party’s recruiting is seen in the emphasis on engaging with lumpenized men as the base of the organization. The social power wielded by working class people is largely ignored, with some rare exceptions. Nelson’s Black Panthers fails to interrogate these as origins of the dissolution, and rests the blame squarely on the aforementioned COINTELPRO operations and the specific conflicts between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver in the late 1970s and early 1980s – a friction often stoked by FBI informants and plants.
Granted, the film does show some of the early differences between what would become the “Cleaver faction,” or the section of the organization devoted to revolutionary struggle and change, and the “Newton faction,” or the section committed to quasi-social work and engagement with the extant juridical framework to an extent that diluted the revolutionary message of the Black Panthers. Both sides, in their embryonic forms while Newton was in prison (1967), and in their calcified forms during the frictions of the 1970s, had good ideas as well as poor ones, as the documentary makes clear. However, the factional issue was not so much to do with the personalities of Cleaver and Newton themselves (as the film makes it appear) as it did with the internal political differences in the organization embodied by the two.
Despite some analytic shortcomings and excising some important information, Nelson’s Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a beautiful film, and worth seeing for anyone interested in the history of Afro-American struggle in the United States. Additionally, it is fairly significant for those of us reckoning with the problems of race, policing, gender, social power, and the utilities of violence in social movements. Nelson’s film is mandatory viewing for those engaged in struggles against the social relations wrought by capitalism, and very much so in this post-Ferguson moment. Black Panthers, while not a direct call to action, offers enough insight into the struggle(s) for Black liberation to foment discussion about the future of resistance as the contradictions and negative externalities of capitalism (currently of the neo-liberal flavor in the USA) are exacerbated and continue to adversely affect large swaths of oppressed peoples in this county.