BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION (2015) is the first documentary to take a deep look at one of the most influential Black political movements of the Twentieth Century–the Black Panther Party. The film is based on archival footage and interviews with 50 people, including former members, FBI informants, police officers, and others. Watching it, I was amazed at what they achieved, the opportunities they wasted, and the level of government oppression directed at them.
The Black Panther Party formed in California in response to de facto segregation and police brutality. Citing open carry laws, they began arming themselves and shadowing police officers and otherwise patrolling neighborhoods. In response, the State of California and then Governor Ronald Reagan passed legislation to make open carry illegal, with support of the NRA. When Black Panthers showed up in Sacramento during debate on the bill with weapons to make a point, many people were amazed at their audacity, and a national then international movement was born.
From the beginning, the Black Panthers held to a 10-point manifesto. They wanted economic opportunity, decent housing, education, jobs, freedom, a jury by their peers, the release of prisoners, exemption from the draft, and justice. They started child nutrition and other welfare programs in their communities. Their look–black leather jackets, sunglasses, berets, and a gun–influenced fashion, became a Black Power symbol, and helped drive the “Black is beautiful” movement. Despite the male urban guerilla image, the majority of members were women.
The party’s political activity quickly drew the attention of Herbert Hoover, the authoritarian director of the FBI, who focused COINTELPRO activities on destroying the party. Party leaders were subjected to constant harassment, arrest, surveillance, informants, and misinformation designed to create rifts in the leadership. While the open, head-on repression was brutal, it was the more subtle tactics such as sowing dissension that destroyed the party in the end, along with poor leadership in lack of direction. Some of Hoover’s paranoia was earned–the BPP constantly postured and openly called for armed revolution against the United States government. Hoover was particularly paranoid about a “black messiah” figure who would unite Blacks with liberal Whites and start a major political movement, which led to the police assassination of Fred Hampton. The FBI’s tactics were straight up police state stuff, brutal and un-Constitutional.
In the end, the viewer is left to decide if the party served its ideals or got sidetracked in posturing, but either way, it is certain that the Black Panther Party had a profound effect on a new political and cultural awakening for African-Americans in the ’60s.