'Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution': Revolutionary movement against racism and imperialism

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• Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson, 2015, 1 hour 55 minutes

The Black Panther Party for Self Defence has been interpreted in vastly different ways – from a racist hate group, as it is typically portrayed in the liberal media, to an indispensable blueprint for revolutionary organisation in an imperialist country. The Panthers were formed in Oakland, California, in 1966, to defend the African American community from constant attacks by the US state. They recognised that US imperialism was at the core of the destruction of their community. They saw the need for anti-imperialism and revolutionary socialism in order to fight for real change. The party was highly organised, armed for self-defence against the police and dedicated to class struggle. Working class unity is dangerous for the ruling class and the Panthers’ demonstration that they could provide for the poor, in a way that capitalism could not, meant they had to be destroyed. In 1968 they were described by FBI director J Edgar Hoover as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’. In the end, after an orchestrated campaign of state aggression, the organisation was destroyed.

When the new documentary film, The Black Panthers: vanguard of the revolution by Stanley Nelson was released in November, naturally it became a must-see. I must say it was impressive both stylistically and in its content – the strong images of the organised Panthers, the youthfulness of the party, and the number of women featured with natural hair were all powerful.

The film follows chronologically the rapid rise and demise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s through excellent photos, contemporary footage and commentary from past members who were involved in significant events. Added to this is commentary from journalists and historians, as well as lawyers, ex-informants and police officers who had interactions with the Panthers. This adds more depth, immersion and detail to the film when compared to previous documentaries. There is not the same feeling of detachment or the sense that you are looking into a zoo, observing the strange endeavours of a curious group, as in Agnes Varda’s film Black Panthers (1968).

Vanguard of the Revolution goes into more detail than any other Black Panther film I have seen. It mentions the famous free breakfasts for school children programme, as well as some of the less widely recognised achievements, including health clinics, schools and even research into the treatment of sickle cell anaemia, a deadly disease affecting mainly black people. Contrasting with the vile attacks the state subjected poor black communities to, this focus helps to frame the Panthers as a group serving and protecting working class people.

The inclusion of a section on Fred Hampton, a less well known but very important Panther member, who was extremely powerful. Hampton was the charismatic Chairman of the Chicago branch of the Panthers and he understood class struggle. This led him to attempt something imperialism finds very dangerous: to unite the working class. Hampton started a coalition of the Panthers with the Young Patriots, a young white working class group and the Young Lords, a group of young working class Latin Americans. This ‘Rainbow Coalition’ was also joined by several other groups. Hampton was brutally murdered by the police on the orders of the FBI, whilst sleeping. In the raid on the apartment he was in, 99 bullets were fired by police. The graphic nature of the incident illustrates the relentlessness of the state in destroying the Panthers. FBI documents and commentary from ex-officers and informants lay out the methods of the counter-intelligence programme, COINTELPRO, used against the Panthers. The FBI feared the development of a black ‘Messiah’, a leader that would unite different groups and inspire the working class. This was the crime Fred Hampton committed.

The film is not a simplistic positive presentation of the Panthers. It does well in trying to give a balanced view without delivering a liberal standpoint of ‘both sides are right’. The film touches on misogyny within the Panther Party, poor leadership, and criticisms of member recruitment. Lessons can be drawn which are relevant to building a movement today.

The portrayal of Huey P Newton jumps out. The co-founder and leader features little until the film’s conclusion where he is presented as a violent, misguided drug user. From the first-hand accounts of some of Newton’s actions towards the end of the Panthers at their height, it is obvious that he did become a self-destructive character. However, it is easy to miss the context of his situation because of the lack of his presence throughout the film. There may be various reasons why Stanley Nelson has done this, but the absence of Newton allowed the film to lack something else: revolutionary theory and socialism.

Not once in the film are socialism or communism mentioned, only coming close to it when a past member mentions that the Panthers were against capitalism. Huey P Newton was a revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist, who was especially inspired by Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. He was known as the theorist behind the Panthers and by leaving out his background, speeches, and writings, the film leaves out the radical theory and the socialist ideas which made the Panthers unique.

This is definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in the Black Panther Party and all burgeoning revolutionaries. Many lessons can be learned from the film, not least the contradiction of capitalism not being able to provide for the majority of its people whilst accumulating wealth for the rich, and how far the state is willing to go to destroy the threat of a revolutionary movement. There is a sense of sadness throughout that such a strong revolutionary force was destroyed. Overall this is an inspiring movie, well worth watching.

Eric Ogbogbo

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 248 December 2015/January 2016