Sydney Underground Film Festival Review: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (USA, 2015)

In the early 1960’s a movement was beginning to grow amongst the African-Americans in the United States. It began in the south led by Martin Luther King Jr with a pacifist push but soon a group emerged in the west coastal city of Oakland (near San Francisco), founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale came the Black Panther Party. The Party took a more overt stance, opting to use intimidation tactics against the police who were targeting and committing acts of brutality towards African-Americans. This documentary written and directed by Stanley Nelson chronologically tracks the rise and fall of the party and its key members, and how the US Government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were a part of its dissemination.

For a party with such a short lifespan a lot of things happened during its existence but almost all of it seemed to be fuelled by the men who led the party and steered its actions. The film begins with a clip from the tv show Soul Train and the soul music artists The Chi-Lites singing “For God’s sake why don’tcha give more power to the people?” and really that was the fundamental theme of the Black Panther movement – to give power back to the people. This is set against imagery of African-Americans being shoved and pushed around by police, and protest marches where people clashed with police and violence was evident. The party was born as a means for African Americans to protect the welfare of their own, to ensure that police were not unfairly committing acts of brutality against anybody that had been pulled up for minor offences. But as the party grew so did its fundamentals. They had a 10 point plan that outlined what the party sought, including adequate housing, access to welfare, an education for children, as well as an end to capitalist manipulation and oppression via white supremacy. They set up programs to offer free breakfast for schoolkids, and healthcare clinics and built its own community by encouraging women to be members, and even boosting the numbers of African-Americans who were registered to vote. But their rise and the outspokenness of their leaders particularly Fred Hampton and Eldridge Cleaver drew attention from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and J Edgar Hoover, who sought to shut down the party. The FBI saw them as a revolutionary force and a potential terrorist threat to the security of the Government and the country.

Nelson’s film is awash in archival footage and interviews with people who were former members of the party, who had lived through the heady days of its rise and saw it fall. These first person accounts give credibility and an intimate insight into the party and what it was like to be a member. They also provide the backbone of the chronology as they talk about specific events, like the incarceration of the founding member Huey Newton, or when Eldridge Cleaver had to flee to Algeria or the transition of Bobby Seale to becoming a candidate running for Mayor of Oakland or the most shocking of all, the deplorable shooting of Fred Hampton that occurred during an FBI instigated raid. Courtesy of a consistent soundtrack of protest soul music underpinning this documentary. But what is most shocking is the revelations that the FBI were outright targeting the party and its members, and that the local police were used as pawns to entrap, incarcerate or instigate violent reactions from the BPP members. Damning documents and memos reveal the FBI’s policies to eliminate the “black Messiah” figures, particularly Hampton and Cleaver, and Nelson lets the fact speak for themselves.

Even though the film investigates the tumultuous times of the late 60’s and early 70’s it never once outright correlates it with current trends. This is both surprising and a little disappointing, not just from a film point of view but also a social justice standpoint. It’s a shame to think that the US is still suffering with poverty and discrimination 50 years later and that the #BlackLivesMatter trend that is prevalent now is merely an echo of “Free Huey” and that in all that time very little has changed or progressed or improved. What also isn’t discussed is how once the Black Panther Party dissolved how it left a gaping void particularly for the younger generation of African Americans to have their political voices heard. It’s no surprise that the rise in gang lifestyles in the 80’s can almost be directly connected to the end of the BPP. Fans of the current box office hit Straight Outta Compton might want to check this film out to have an understanding of where some of the history of the civil rights movement began.

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a fascinating insight into a movement, a political party, and a community that has received minimal mainstream coverage in media. They were an organisation that strived and achieved a lot of good work but through the channelled ego and aggression of some of its leaders resulted in the force of the FBI coming down hard on not only its members but causing a setback in their own progression and ability to achieve equality for African-Americans. It remains to be seen whether a new movement like that of the BPP could find a renaissance in current times and climes, it almost feels like we’re sorely due for the winds of change are blowing.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS
Running Time: 113 minutes

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will be screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival. For more info and tickets go to the SUFF website.