The Pan African Film Festival’s (PAFF) esteemed executive director, Ayuko Babu, was a member of the Black Panther Party and imbues the annual filmfest with its high level of political consciousness. This year, two Panther documentaries are being screened: Gregory Everett’s 41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers and, for a return engagement, Stanley Nelson’s stand-up-and-cheer 2014 The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Armed with firearms and a law book, in 1966 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale boldly patrolled Oakland’s mean streets, confronting the police over their (mis)treatment of Blacks. Insisting on their Second Amendment right to bear arms and that the so-called “pigs” must obey the letter of the law when interacting with African Americans, their brazen, in-your-snout defiance set Huey, Bobby and their followers on a collision course with the Oakland PD, the FBI, soon the Nixon administration, and COINTELPRO.
As what the New Left called “AmeriKKKa” continues to grapple half a century later with ongoing police brutality plus vigilante violence against Blacks, filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution reminds us that it was precisely this excessive use of force by lawless officers of the law that gave birth to what was originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Nelson’s rousing 116-minute documentary also chronicles the war unleashed by local and federal law enforcement against the Panthers, triggering raids and shootouts at their headquarters in cities across the nation and the gunning down of cadres, from Little Bobby Hutton in the Bay Area to charismatic leader Fred Hampton in Chicago.
Vanguard is told through exciting news clips and archival footage plus original interviews with surviving BPP stalwarts such as Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins. Other interviewees include the late Civil Rights activist Julian Bond, defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt, and former SDS leader, Seale’s recently deceased Chicago 8 co-defendant Tom Hayden.
Vanguard documents much more about the militant organization that captured the world’s attention, reveals the party’s spectacular stunts, such as marching into the Sacramento State Capitol bearing arms, outraging Gov. Ronald Reagan. There’s that strident rhetoric, with sizzling Sixties slogans such as “Off the pig!” and “All power to the people!”
Cadres had a photogenic stylish fashion sense: Who could forget those cool black leather jackets and berets? Or Douglas’ provocative art rendered in posters and the Panthers’ newspaper aimed at inspiring readers to commit radical acts of resistance? Then there’s the revolutionary politics, which transcended narrow “pork chop” nationalism with a mixture of anti-imperialism linking the Black liberation struggle to anti-colonial movements around the world with a class consciousness that advocated unity with progressive whites.
Chronicler of a cause, Nelson also portrays the other side of a party that was motivated by a desire to serve the people: The Panthers’ free breakfast program for poor children (accompanied, admittedly, by heavy doses of indoctrination); the sickle cell anemia screening and awareness which Nelson reminds us the Panthers pioneered; and Bobby Seale’s quixotic 1973 run in Oakland’s mayoral race, wherein the former political prisoner and eighth member of the Chicago 7 defied expectations, finishing second in a nine-person race. Alas, Seale is not interviewed in Vanguard, though the ex-BPP chairman is seen in period footage during the party’s heyday.
Vanguard, however, is no apologia for an ultraleft organization awash in cults of revolutionary violence and personality. Nelson depicts, though doesn’t dwell on, the factionalism that pitted Panther against Panther. J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO — the FBI’s counterintelligence program designed to splinter the Communist Party and then the New Left — stirred the pot behind the scenes through surveillance plus a network of paid informers and agents provocateur. Factionalism reached its apotheosis with the fight between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, after the convicted rapist, Soul On Ice author and BPP Minister of Information, fled to Algeria. Vanguard doesn’t go into much detail about the split between the party’s domestic and overseas wings.
Most of the violence involving the Panthers was forced upon them, as the party was hounded from the start by police and political authorities seemingly bent on its extermination. To be sure, in the course of revolutionary times, violence often plays a role. But the BPP acted prematurely, shooting it out when, with probably no more than a few thousand cadres nationwide at any given time, they were clearly outgunned.
Having a convicted rapist as a national leader was a dubious proposition, as was Newton’s daft notion of “revolutionary suicide.” Nevertheless, while the Panthers’ overt militancy may have contributed to their downfall, it’s for their brazen bravado that they may be best remembered and beloved.
Like Straight Outta Compton, which denounces police brutality in that other California community in the 1980s, Vanguard remains, unfortunately, extremely timely and of the moment. While police violence against African Americans hasn’t improved in the past half century, technology has changed. One wonders: If Huey monitored the “pigs” today to hold them accountable, would he carry a cell phone instead of a rifle? Nelson reminds us that, paraphrasing Chairman Mao, “political power also grows out of the barrel of a camera lens.”
Vanguard has numerous stand-up-and-cheer moments, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the Black liberation fight and the 1960s-’70s New Left. With this latest installment of his ongoing reportage, Stanley Nelson is keeping his eyes on the motion picture prize. The Emmy Award winner shows himself once again to be the documentarian par exemplar of the African American struggle for human rights and social justice. His glowing, awe-inspiring body of work has already chronicled Black nationalist Marcus Garvey with a 2000 nonfiction film and the Civil Rights movement with the stellar documentaries 2010’s Freedom Riders and 2014’s Freedom Summer. His 2017 Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is having its West Coast premiere at this year’s PAFF. Nelson is to the African American cause what Kino Pravda filmmaker Dziga Vertov was to the Russian Revolution and Ken Burns is to Americana.
41st & Central
41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers, which is as exciting as any Hollywood shoot-’em-up, won PAFF’s Audience Favorite Award Documentary in 2010. 41st & Central is directed by Gregory Everett, son of ex-Panther Jeffrey Everett, who is among the doc’s interviewees providing eyewitness accounts, along with Panther icons Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins and longtime political prisoner Geronimo Pratt (aka Geronimo Ji Jaga). The 130-minute 2009 film is a riveting saga of the creation of the Panthers in Oakland and the Black Power organization’s spread to Southern California, with the formation of what was arguably the party’s most militant chapter in L.A. by former prisoner Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins. The doc recounts the socialist-oriented Panthers’ clash with the cultural nationalists of Ron Karenga’s US Organization, which apparently led to the 1968 shootings of Carter and Huggins at UCLA.
The film’s title refers to the climactic shoot-out between the LAPD and the Panthers at their L.A. HQ at 41st and Central in the ’hood. One of the survivors of that tense confrontation declares onscreen that during this violent five-hour standoff he never felt freer, as he was a Black man deciding who would and would not enter the Panther office, which was even aerial bombed during the armed clash. While 41st & Central is indeed a story about heroic resistance, it’s also a cautionary tale about political recklessness and an implicit critique of the Panthers’ philosophy of “revolutionary suicide”: In revolution, the goal is to vanquish your enemy, not get killed. In any case, after PAFF’s screening the onscreen events — plus the plight of African Americans today — was discussed by a historic panel that included ex-Panthers, a US Organization representative, and ex-LAPD chief and former city councilman Bernard Parks, whom many accused of police brutality during the 2000 Democratic Convention, when unprovoked LAPD riot police attacked unarmed demonstrators after a Rage Against the Machine outdoor concert.
L.A.-based critic and film historian Ed Rampell is the presenter and programmer of “10 Films That Shook the World,” a cinematic centennial celebration of the Russian Revolution, premiering 7 pm, Feb. 24 at the Los Angeles Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A. 90019.