The clue’s in the title. This timely documentary is not so much about how others see the Black Panthers as how they see themselves.
And that’s no bad thing. The film uses a wealth of interviews with surviving members, skilfully intercut with dynamic footage from the time, to allow the Panthers to tell their own story, in their own words. At times, the combined effect thrills you the way a fiction film does. At other times it makes you cry.
When you’re compiling a beginner’s guide to a group that were active in so many areas over so many years, it’s almost impossible to know what to include and what to leave out. Director Stanley Nelson Jr’s solution is to focus on the intense period spanning the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and he scrupulously tries to cover everything of importance that went down during those years: the police harassment that provoked the Panthers into forming, the major trials, arrests and confrontations, J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless disruption of the party, the FBI raids, and the equally damaging internal squabbles that threatened to rip the group apart long before it finally disbanded in 1982.
As if this wasn’t enough, the film is also richly informative about the day-to-day activities of the group – we hear almost as much about the people on the ground as we do about Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and the other movers and shakers. The interviewees go into fascinating detail about the party newspaper, the cartoon strip that popularised the slang term “pigs”, the “Free Huey” demonstrations (see lead image), and community initiatives like the Breakfast for Children programme. The result is a far more well-rounded view of the group than you might expect from a film this close to its subject.
In fact, the director goes out of his way to be evenhanded. His interviewees readily acknowledge the group’s flaws: the Black Panthers’ rhetoric could be extreme. Their leaders often let them down. The party had a tendency towards misogyny. Thankfully, the film redresses the balance by making sure women’s voices are heard, and reminding us that at one time there were more women in the party than men.
Despite this nuanced approach, Black Panthers clearly aims for your heartstrings, and it’s a good shot. The interviewees are so compelling, the pacing so electric, that you can’t help but be swept up in the Panthers’ struggle. And it doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack is fantastic. Nelson decides to stick to black music of the period, with an emphasis on high-energy, toe-tapping funk. It’s to his credit that, even in the narrative’s tragic moments, he never falls back on the generic strings that most filmmakers use as a crutch. The mournful soul tracks he selects are far more fitting – and effective.
The film’s not perfect. It needs more subtitles, as a lot of the archive material has very poor sound quality. And some of the period interviews could stand to last longer than the tantalising few seconds they’re allotted (well, there’s always YouTube). Most of all, at the end of the film you get the sense that something’s missing. Ironically, this is because it’s so detailed. Nelson is so busy describing the inner workings of the Panthers that he leaves us without much sense of the group’s context: the social forces that made them so necessary, and the legacy they left behind. Black Panthers ends up feeling like a well-written, well-researched essay that lacks an introduction and conclusion. When the tale ends in a quagmire of poverty, loneliness, infighting, persecution and weariness, you’re left wondering what, if any, the group’s concrete long-term achievements were.
That said, in the wake of the riots and upheavals of the last two years, the film’s release at this point in time is a political statement in itself. And the questions it asks – is it better to aim for small-scale change or total reform? How do you react in the face of oppression and injustice? What does freedom mean? – haven’t gone away. Hoover’s words ring as chillingly true today as they did then: ‘Justice is merely incidental to law and order.’
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens in the IFI on 30th October.
All photos courtesy IFI