The Black Panthers had a lot going for them. A great name which made you sit up and listen, and of course the image. The black leather jackets, berets and Afros. If they had been able to market and sell that look, they'd have had enough to pay all their legal fees and political initiatives.
The film encapsulates the essence of the times: the belief that things could change, the can-do attitude and the funky soundtrack. As director Stanley Nelson says: "If we hadn't had the Panthers, we wouldn't have had hip-hop. It was a calculated look, it wasn't by accident. In some ways it was in opposition to civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, with the suits. It was a different look, much more cool."
And the black civil rights movement had something very serious to say. This was an era of Vietnam, the KKK was very much in evidence, and police brutality well documented. This film really brings to life what it must have been like in those heady early days of a political movement which would have far-reaching effects which still last today.
Using archival footage with the voices of the people who were there, this is first-hand evidence from all sides – the police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panther party members including Kathleen Cleaver, Tarika Lewis, Ericka Huggins, and Jamal Joseph.
Moreover, it was a young movement. The Black Panthers Party (BPP) were mostly people 25 and under who were prepared to fight to the death for their beliefs, the call to action for black power, and a vocal protest against racial violence and oppression. They were angry and not afraid to show it, as one party member says: "We were making history and it wasn't nice and clean."
What is most impressive about this film is coming away with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the movement. The aims of the panthers were far-reaching and included decent housing, better health care, education and nutrition for children. At its height, 20,000 meals were delivered in the Free Breakfast Programme.
It's heartbreaking to see the early, inspirational days of the BPP descend into chaos, riven by internal dissension, the megalomania of some of the leaders – but most of all brought down by the FBI. As director Nelson says: "It's a cautionary tale."
Of course, the Panthers couldn't win against the tsunami wave of the US government. The film also reveals the depths to which the FBI stooped to, such as the Counter Intelligence Programme. Hoover was using the tactic of "by any means necessary" long before Malcolm X.
"Nobody understood the lengths that the FBI would go to. The Counter Intelligence programme was a secret programme. Nobody knew it existed. It was found out by accident in 1971. Nobody knew the FBI was writing fake letters to people pitting spouse against spouse," says Nelson.
"Five of the founder members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther party were government informants. From the moment the party is started, it's infiltrated. They were also pushing the Panthers to commit crime, they are buying guns for the Panthers. There were phone calls saying 'I'm your husband's lover' to split people apart, to make them paranoid."
What's missing from the film is any mention of Angela Davis. For many, she is the best-known black activist on the planet, so there's a disquieting absence about her work in the black power movement. But Nelson explains: "Angela Davis is not an official member of the Black Panther party. If we had had a four hour film instead of a two hour film we would have had time to talk about people like her."
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a passionate and rousing film about the organisation which has had a lasting effect on the broader human rights movement.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution encapsulates the essence of the times: the belief that things could change, the can-do attitude, and the funky soundtrack.
What's missing from the film is any mention of Angela Davis, a well-known black activist, so there's a disquieting absence about her work in the black power movement.
It is a passionate and rousing film about the organisation which has had a lasting effect on the broader human rights movement. What is most impressive about this film is coming away with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the movement.