The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the new documentary film out from Stanley Nelson and Firelight Media. Nelson has a long career as a filmmaker; two of his most recent projects for PBS include The Murder of Emmett Till (2003) and Freedom Riders (2010). Moving forward through the civil rights movement, Vanguard follows the emergence of the Black Panther Party.
Director: Stanley Nelson
Producers: Stanley Nelson, Laurens Grant
Writer: Stanley Nelson
Cinematographer: Antonio Rossi, Rick Butler
Editor: Aljernon Tunsil
Premiere: January 23, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 2, 2015
US Distributor: Independent
Vanguard is gorgeous—and very new wave—in archival black and white with an incredible soundtrack of popular and protest music that’s hip and fiery. As Kathleen Cleaver, a scholar and leader of the BPP, says of the movement, “We looked cool.” And she’s right. The Black Panther Party was a young person’s movement, and it’s alternatively exciting and devastating to see all of these beautiful, passionate and very young people stand up for dignity in the face of state oppression.
The documentary follows the origin of the Oakland Black Panthers in 1967, the founding office, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. From there it describes the growing pains of the organization as it became a national movement and shows the national leaders that emerged, including Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. The film follows themes, moving generally forward, from the mid-sixties. But, evoking the fable of different people trying to identify an elephant in the dark, the history of the Black Panther Party is convoluted and involves many, many actors.
Nelson does a terrific job explaining the origins and the platform of the party. Through interviews with Oakland Panthers, we learn that the Party organized as a response to police brutality, making this film sadly current. The initial efforts of the Panthers were as a civilian watchdog group, monitoring the traffic stops of Oakland Police, carrying firearms, demonstrating a willingness to engage the police violently in the event of brutality. A terrific scene shows the Panthers driving around and then coming to a traffic stop, getting out, standing away from the scene, but making themselves very visible.
Another aspect of the Party’s work that Vanguard shows in greater detail is the social service programs that operated out of BPP offices. These included free health clinics and free breakfasts, which served 20,000 children a week during the peak of its implementation. This kind of a thing is telling, because the so-called radical agenda—free clinics and breakfast for schoolchildren—has largely been almost universally adopted since, and it’s made the lives of millions of schoolchildren better.
The documentary does not gloss over the sad and strange story of COINTELPRO, the FBI initiative that targeted young leftist, and specifically civil rights, movements in the 1960s. The legacy of this program is wide and scary to contemplate, especially when considering the persistent demonization of moderate socialist programs in America. But Nelson hones in on the way the FBI explicitly sought to undermine this nascent organization, sometimes through acts of criminal violence.
The film also tells the story of Fred Hampton, the young leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago assassinated by the Chicago Police in an action organized by the FBI.
The 1971 film The Murder of Fred Hampton probes this event with greater detail. At 4 a.m. December 4, 1969, a tactical unit of the CPD led a “raid” on Hampton’s apartment. They claimed a gunfight, but the forensic evidence showed that only one shot was fired by Mark Clark, a young man sitting by the door, his weapon discharged after he had been shot in the heart. Hampton was asleep in his bed, and the CPD still discharged ninety-nine rounds into the apartment, wounding Hampton’s shoulder before two rounds were fired point blank into his head. This event was met with immediate public outcry and an eventual 2 million dollar settlement by the FBI. Today it is generally considered a political assassination.
Fred Hampton grew up in Maywood, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago; it’s a comfortable town, and nowadays you can visit its lovely parks, baseball fields, and a municipal swimming pool named for Hampton. This example is so chilling because he was a perfect example of an all-American—athlete, pre-law student—and the violence against Hampton was so extreme. He was the most charismatic and fiery voice of the Chicago Black Panthers in the late 1960s, notable for a group that included Bobby Rush, Carole Mosely Braun, and Chaka Khan.
The footage in Vanguard of the Revolution is excellent at capturing the activist flair that scholar and artist Theaster Gates rightly identifies as the “performance of black nationalism.” The film reiterates the explicit goal of COINTELPRO: to prevent the emergence of a “messiah figure” in the black nationalist movement. It’s certainly easy to imagine Hampton in this role as he exhorts, “you can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.” His defiance and his brilliance cuts open a new space for blackness to occupy.
And this performative expansion of blackness is one of the most compelling aspects of Vanguard, and the reality of the Black Panther movement. Vanguard returns to this concept frequently: the Black Panther image—leather jacket, shades, hat askew—offers a kind of futurism. It’s easy to pick up on the Italian and Russian futurist vanguards—Marinetti and Mayakovsky—as we watch the BPP.
And the brilliant creative energy of the party’s luminaries shouldn’t be understated. It took the explicit targeting of the United States security apparatus to undermine the BPP. This is, of course, doubly damning when you look at the modest demands the Panthers put forward, including “employment, decent housing, education, end to police brutality and murder, and trial by a jury of peers.” This modesty recalls Gil Scott-Heron in his 1970 “Comment #1,” from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and his denouncing of the white SDS claiming solidarity with the Panthers. The white SDS revolutionary can “check his privilege,” but he cannot understand the complex humiliations experienced by the black revolutionary. Gil Scott-Heron laments, “All I want is a good home, and a wife, and children, and some food to feed them every night.” The film identifies this question of surviving the day-to-day humiliations of America as central to the Party’s tension between social service programs (survivalism) and revolt (militarism).
But what this gets at, that the film glosses over to some extent, is the persistent institutionalized violence directed at black Americans in the middle of the 20th century. Police departments in major American cities by the middle of the 20th century were vastly corrupt. City governments were run on graft. Through the 1950s, the FHA explicitly refused home loans to African Americans. Predatory real estate practices drove down housing values, “flipping blocks.” The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 was founded in an ideology that encouraged public housing conditions to be as uncomfortable as possible, to prevent people from becoming complacent in their condition. Again and again, you see that the creation of racialized zones of privation in major American cities in the middle of the 20th century came out of violent explicit, institutional forces. And all of this is just to say, the Black Panther party was responding to a very real crisis.
The most thrilling scene in the film, comes early on when on May 2nd, 1967, the Oakland Black Panthers Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Bobby Hutton carry long arms into the California state building, protesting a law to prevent them from carrying firearms. They travel from Oakland to Sacramento to demonstrate, and their first stop is a march on the Capitol lawn. During that march, then Governor Ronald Reagan was welcoming a group of school children ten yards away. When the press see the Panthers, they abandon Reagan and follow the demonstrators. From the lawn, they enter the capitol and, through a mix-up, walk out onto the floor of the assembly. Legislators are wide-eyed and totally unprepared. The notion that an armed black movement could stand up against state violence today is almost inconceivable. Given the sheer number of unarmed black men that are brutalized each year, with minimal excuse, the image of the Panthers standing yards away from a line of armed police, marching with their rifles drawn, feels almost like something out of another world.
But these actions represent the important conceptual activist nature of the party. The Black Panthers identified the institutional violence that was being perpetuated against their community, and they demonstrated in clear terms the willingness to respond with commensurate violence. While the heart of the party’s platform reflects something like socialism, this performance of black militancy was crucial to be able to create a space for all of the conversations they were having. “We come for what’s ours.” The famous Panther refrain reflects a statement of violence, and this dictum allowed them to move beyond tensions of survivalism and militancy, and to enter a more idealistic place.
The futurist vanguard of the BPP took control of the conversation, creating opportunities for multi-faceted, complex, and infinite possible worlds. And it was only through the performance of militancy that the conversation shifted from a narrative of the black community “in need,” to something else. A.L. Nielsen, a poet and scholar, talks about the importance of this kind of performative transgression for black movements. Because so much of the production of media and ideas in contemporary America comes from very specific places of power, the ability to put forth ideas outside of these power structures represents rupture. Nielsen talks about the way that black arts are often channeled into the same conversations. The original violence of the middle passage, for example, represents an enormous hurdle to move beyond conceptually. Through the performance of militancy, the Panthers said, “We will not be brutalized,” and this symbolic transgression allowed for a conversation outside of the familiar structure and, in doing so, created new worlds of possibility for their people.