“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution,” a new documentary about the rise and fall of an activist movement that began over five decades ago, may wind up being the most timely film of the year.
The film, which according to its director Stanley Nelson was seven years in the making, portrays the substantial impact the Panthers had on African-American psyches and politics, as well as the fear and loathing they provoked within the top echelons of the federal government.
Amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the stated goals and aggressive posture of the Panthers feels more relevant than they have in years. And the battles the Panthers fought – against racially biased policing in particular – are eerily similar to fights being waged within communities of color today. Through the use of powerful (and often quite funny) archival footage, modern interviews and the classic soul music of the period, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution” aims to set the record straight on the polarizing organization and rally a whole new audience to take up their cause.
“If you look at the tactics the Panthers were using they were captivating audiences and galvanizing media attention through their armed protests,” Sam Aleshinloye, an assistant producer on the film, told msnbc. “If you look at the Black Lives Matter protests right now … their weapon of choice today is a cell phone.”
And yet Aleshinloye thinks the film is “poignant” today because “we’re seeing unarmed people being killed, we’re seeing people being brutalized and now these young people are standing up and saying you can’t do this.”
Besides documenting the Panthers’ celebrated breakfast program (which served over 20,000 meals in 19 impoverished communities) and their infamous infighting, the movie does an adept job of providing a context for why they were such a threat to the existing power structure in the United States. Their story “wasn’t nice or clean,” as former member Ericka Huggins points out in the film, but it was historic.
The film also dispels myths about the Panthers. For instance, the majority of the rank and file members were women and the organization never formally backed violence as a means of achieving its goals. And the movie does a thorough job of documenting FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal preoccupation with destroying the group to prevent the “rise of a black messiah” who might form coalitions with liberal whites.
“The FBI did set out to destroy the Panthers and the Panthers were destroyed but they were also destroyed from within,” Nelson told msnbc. "Any movement that gets any measure of success -- there's greater pressure on you."
Nelson, who has made a number of socially relevant features for Firelight Media, recently screened the documentary for an audience in Ferguson, Missouri, where he said he “felt a lot of energy in the room” and that attendees, some of whom were young activists, were “very, very supportive.”
“This film can and should be used as a tool by young people who are organizers,” Nelson said. “It’s a cautionary tale.”
Of course, the film is also not without its detractors. Former Panther chairwoman Elaine Brown recently penned a column for The Daily Beast in which she called the film “condemnable” and its at times unflattering portrayal of Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, “shocking and disappointing.”
Brown appears in the film, conceding that “we didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven,” but in her Daily Beast article she alleges that she asked to be removed from the final cut but was allegedly rebuffed by Nelson.
Former Panther leader and Newton ally David Hilliard has also come out in opposition to the film, arguing that it “besmirches the memory and legacy” of the party’s late co-founder and misrepresents the roles of others in the movement.
Nelson declined to comment on their specific objections, but did say that when he began the project, “We knew that there was going to be some kind of backlash.”
He went on to point out that “Huey Newton’s problems later in life are well documented and for us to ignore or whitewash those would have opened up the film to a whole lot of criticism from everybody.”
“We’re required as documentary filmmakers to bring to light what we see,” he added. Nelson argues that the Panthers’ positive legacy holds up despite its darker chapters and the best thing to do is to be “open and honest about it.”
Meanwhile, the film is enjoying widespread critical acclaim and is already playing to packed houses at New York City’s Film Forum. It will expand to several other select cities over the next several weeks.
And this may be only the beginning of a Panther resurgence. HBO has a miniseries on the organization in the works (for which Brown’s autobiography has been optioned) and Nelson thinks this could speak to the “strange and fortuitous” climate in which the film was released.
“The Black Panther movement started as a result of police brutality almost 50 years ago,” Nelson pointed out. Today, on the streets on Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities across over the country their mantle is being seized by a new generation.