Director Stanley Nelson captures the excitement of the revolutionary Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. But it doesn’t hide the problems that contributed to their rapid decline.
It’s a serious accomplishment to reflect so many aspects of a group which went through dramatically different phases.
People who joined the Panthers at different points of its explosive growth had dramatically different experience.
This included armed confrontation with the racist police and running breakfast programmes for black children.
Nelson has unearthed new archive footage, showing the relentless police harassment poor black people faced.
This contrasts with the sheer joy in the Panthers’ theatrical mixes of singing, dancing and political speeches.
The film mixes interviews from both then and now with former Panthers and FBI agents.
Interviewees include Panthers who thought they would die as they fought police assaulting their headquarters.
It shows how women went from a tolerated minority expected to do the cooking to the majority of party members, both carrying guns and organising.
The US was in flux in the 1960s and the Panthers saw themselves as the vanguard of a revolution to overthrow capitalism.
Black power songs were on TV pop shows and the Panthers built support among top Hollywood actors, including Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando.
The film benefits from the fact that it’s now possible to read details of the FBI’s Cointelpro programme.
It was set up to try and split the Panthers, and set its members against each other and other radical organisations.
The film reveals the levels of state infiltration. As one former member says, “We recruited people but didn’t know where they were going.”
For much of the period of the party’s growth, many of its leaders were in prison. The film shows how the police extra judicially assassinated Fred Hampton, the Panther’s charismatic leader in Sacramento.
But the film doesn’t shrink from presenting the increasingly erratic and dictatorial sode worse side of party founder Huey Newton.
It’s brilliant to hear Panthers Kathleen Cleaver and Erica Huggins talking about the experience.
But it’s a pity that such a comprehensive film doesn’t include recent interviews with either surviving founder Bobby Seale or David Hilliard.
All revolutionaries and socialists should rush to see this film. Even better, help organise a local showing.