Before Black Lives Matter There was Power to the People

(This film is now streaming for a limited time.)

‘History written with lightning’ is how D.W. Griffith described his epic 1915 revisionist history The Birth of a Nation. A century later, Stanley Nelson’s riveting The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is its own cinematic electric storm. Among the impact the documentary has on a viewer is a consideration of justice issues, then and now.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames
Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames

The feature length documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the iconic Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the late 60s and early 70s. The film includes emotional, insightful, and candid interviews with many of the founding fathers and mothers of the movement. To great effect, the film also includes revealing insights from FBI agents and cops who, in blunt talk, share accounts of their shooting war with the Panthers.

As Nelson did with his film ‘Jonestown’ and his American Indian Movement episode from PBS series We Shall Remain, the filmmaker effectively crafts much of the narrative from period news clips and archival film. There is so much of this found footage that the viewer is viscerally transported back to those times of tumult.

Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch
Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch

One of the stories from the shadows of the era is the FBI’s COINTELPRO. While many baby boomers will knowingly brace for it, millennials who aren’t familiar with the dark history of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program will learn of a conspiracy story Fox Mulder wouldn’t believe. The films story of how ‘COINTELPRO’ dealt with charismatic, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton will make your blood run cold.

There’s plenty of inspiration to balance out the grim realities of the times. The sequence showing how co-founder Bobby Seale’s run for Mayor of Oakland foreshadows how some Panthers in other cities ascended into political office. The innovation that was Panther’s Breakfast for Children program, illustrated in the documentary through wonderful film footage and photos, is a compelling instance of impact. This sublime, disruption of disparities—feed hungry kids and you’ve made change—is also something to consider for the emerging protest movements today.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames
Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames

In fact, it’s impossible to watch Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers without considering the rise of Black Lives Matter. As seen in the documentary, police brutality was certainly worse a half century ago. However, that it persists so starkly in the 21st century is all the more maddening. While many criticize BLM for its disruptive tactics and aggressive protest chants, their ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ refrain sounds positively Ghandian compared to the ‘off the pigs’ chants that echo throughout the film. The explicitly violent protest songs trouble the contemporary ear, even that of a long-time student of the Panthers like me.

The film, produced before the ascendance of the Black Live Matter, offers other parallels to today. Like BLM, the majority of Panthers across the nation, including leadership, were quite young, many in their teens. Another illustrative parallel between the two movements is the presence of ‘allies.’ Supportive Latino and Asian militants are seen in some choice clips. The found footage features no shortage of white allies, including activist ‘Hillbillies’, Hollywood elites, and many white college women chanting, ‘Free Huey!’ at Panther rallies and speeches.

Protest chants are as ever-present in the film as they are in our streets today and I came away thinking about the main mantras of these two powerful movements. Black Lives Matter, certainly. After watching The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, I was reminded that our lives—and communities—are improved through Power to the People.

Independent Lens: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution premieres February 16th on TPT 2.

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