The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Directed by Stanley Nelson
The story of the Black Panthers is often told in a scatter of repackaged parts, often depicting tragic, mythic accounts of violence and criminal activity. Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. An essential history, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is a vibrant, human, living and breathing chronicle of this pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary culture in America.
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★★★★ review by Mark Cunliffe on Letterboxd
After witnessing the utter trivialisation of the movement and its aims at Beyonce's half time Super Bowl show last month (an alleged serious political statement from a woman whose previous attempts at political statements have included establishing herself as a feminist by performing in front of a huge neon sign saying 'FEMINIST' at the MTV Awards, and proclaiming that feminism was "too extreme" a word, taking it upon herself to give it "a catchy new word...like bootylicious", whilst her husband repeatedly cheats on her - whoa step aside Malala, you pretender!) this film serves as a timely reminder of the history of The Black Panthers and their stance against decades of systematic oppression and racism - a status quo that is still sadly occurring today.
★★★★★ review by Megan on Letterboxd
Amazing documentary showing the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. I enjoyed the narrative and the interviews. It's a good partner piece with Black Power Mixtape, they showcase different people and important instances in the parties history.
Of course I'm gonna give this 5 stars. It's my favorite part of American history.
★★★½ review by yanni on Letterboxd
fun fact: i played soccer with the directors daughter when i was a kid
★★★★ review by Jason Alley on Letterboxd
A very good, enlightening documentary about the rise, prominence, fracture, and eventual fall of the Black Panther party. Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fred Hampton, are of course not available for interview (and Bobby Seale must have chosen not to participate for some reason), but many, many former members of varying prominence share their recollections.
Director Stanley Nelson does an excellent job telling a very complex and years-spanning story with confidence. He also directed the utterly terrifying documentary JONESTOWN: THE RISE AND FALL OF PEOPLES TEMPLE, which I'd also highly recommend.
★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
I'd seen Stanley Nelson's previous, terrifying film about Jonestown, so I should have trusted him more. And yet it still blindsided me when what seemed like Vanguard of the Revolution's biggest flaw turned out to be its greatest asset. With Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton and Huey Newton all dead, and Bobby Seale not present for whatever reason, the film skates over the group's formation. I was worried that, as it continued, it would feel like it lacked a centre.
This isn't the case. Nelson recognises that there is a space at the heart of his film, and he fills it with voices we might not have heard before. This is important, because the film's thesis is that the need for leadership - and, in retrospectives, for the Black Panthers to become part of the Great Man school of history - distorted what the party should have been, which was a co-operative, genuinely socialist movement. While Cleaver was in exile and Newton was in jail, the Black Panther Party changed in a lot of ways, and the personality clashes and internal conflicts that came about after their return were perhaps a result of the returning leaders not fully understanding what it had turned into.
By coincidence, before I watched this I picked up a copy of The New Yorker which had a long piece on Black Lives Matter. The New Yorker paused to note that BLM's focus on intersectional issues and queer rights were not some Millennial hijacking of the Civil Rights struggle, as some seem to believe, but were picking up directly where Newton left off. In Newton's absence, too, the Panthers seemed interestingly close to becoming a genuinely co-operative movement, a precursor to the leaderless resistance modern activists favour.
There is an awful lot of material in Nelson's film: some of it, like Bobby Seale's implausibly successful run for Mayor of Oakland, could have filled a movie on its own. I loved the clip of Ronald Reagan declaring that there's no legitimate reason for anyone to carry guns at a political rally. And yet, despite the early gun-toting activism of the Panthers inspiring Republicans to pass anti-gun legislation, the FBI only ramped up their efforts against the Party once their focus had shifted to anti-poverty measures. Watching the white leader of an Appalachian workers' organisation declaring his faith in Huey Newton, you can see all of J Edgar Hoover's nightmares coming true.
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