TV Review - The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

On February 7, during the Half-Time Show at Super Bowl 50, R&B singer Beyoncé performed her new song "Formation," which paid tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, using iconography from the Black Panther Party of the 1960's and 70's. Immediately, a lot of white people, especially those on the political right, were offended. It was even reported that certain police unions or groups were calling for a boycott of Beyoncé. Certain police and those on the right have this belief that Black Lives Matter and especially the Black Panther Party are anti-police. Some in the media perhaps accept this without really studying the history and investigating who or what the Black Panther Party is. This documentary by Emmy-winner Stanley Nelson could be a good place to start for those who are interested.

Like today, back in the 60's, police brutality and tense relations between black people and cops were issues that spurred the creation of the Black Panther Party, much in the same way those same issues spurred the creation of Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, Nelson doesn't provide any hard facts or statistics about police brutality that establish the environment, although black-and-white footage of police brutality is present here and is pretty undeniable.

Courtesy: Stephen Shames
What's also undeniable is the attractiveness of Huey Newton, the young and handsome, charismatic leader and co-founder of the Black Panther Party. He and the others in the initial days of the Black Panthers whom were based out of Oakland had the idea to arm themselves and stage protests, particularly in the state capital of California, openly carrying firearms. To many, who were mainly white, found it threatening, but given the attacks not only from law enforcement but members of the KKK, as well as racism in general, the Black Panthers wanted it known that they were prepared to defend themselves, as the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows.

As the organization grew and expanded, especially across the country, the Black Panthers became a target for the FBI. In particular, J. Edgar Hoover once again proved his racism and paranoia by treating the Black Panther Party as a terrorist group or enemies of the state. The Los Angeles Police Department called it a terrorist organization. The LAPD's sentiments were perhaps not totally unfounded, but police forces like the LAPD went too far, as this film recounts how the police in Chicago murdered Fred Hampton in his own apartment.

The movie tells how Newton declined as a leader due to drug use and mental instabilities, but, in terms of any of the Black Panthers, Nelson doesn't really portray them in any kind of negative light. The fact that Newton was convicted of murder and the fact that the other prominent Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, an author and black intellectual with political ambitions, fled the country because he was charged with murder are two things that are glossed over.

They're glossed over because Nelson is basically doing a filmed version of the Black Panther Party's Wikipedia page. He doesn't really delve deep into who these people are. We get a sense of Newton's charisma, his sex-appeal, and Cleaver's intellect, but we get scant, little to no, biographical information or analysis of their characters. Each guy is just a plot point or a piece on a checkerboard.

As an operation, this movie also doesn't provide any delving into how the Black Panther Party ran itself. For example, it's mentioned that the Black Panthers had a free breakfast program for children as well as a free health clinic. Now, in reality, nothing is free. That food and healthcare had to be paid somehow. This movie never explains where that money originated or how the group funded itself.

There is a slight bias from Nelson who is possibly advocating for the Black Panther Party. Even though Nelson might skip over the incidents that opponents think paint the Black Panthers as a violent, police-hunting terror, there's still enough here to make the case that these are just people frustrated with the abuses.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-PG.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.
Aired Feb. 16, 2016 for Independent Lens on PBS.
Available on DVD/VOD and

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