Before this is aired on PBS next year the Montreal International Black Film Festival gave us the opportunity to see Stanley Nelson’s documentary. We were told on the opening night of the festival that this is the first feature length film on the group and that astounded me. It seems like this group should have had many films made about it in that it made the headlines and was seen as controversial by many.
During this time of heightened racism and violence against blacks in the United States (and elsewhere) it seems like a documentary about this group is totally timely. Much about this group is misinformation or it is just largely ignored. Vanguard of the Revolution attempts to right those wrongs.
The Black Panther Party was on the frontline of the battle for civil rights for blacks in the United States from 1966 until 1982. Some saw the members’ bold moves as too much while others rushed to join. What is not up for debate is that the members of this group were passionate about civil rights. Through interviews with former members of The Black Panthers, director Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) shows how the group led the media around by the noses with their methods in order to shine the spotlight on the group and what they were fighting for.
Those in government and police were frightened of the group as they were radical and had support. Rallies they organized often led to violence of some sort. As a result, The Black Panthers were labeled as public enemy number one in the U.S. We also learn of how J. Edgar Hoover would stop at nothing to eradicate the group. A racist man, Hoover wrote letters about how he feared the group, if allowed to continue, would even have white liberals fighting alongside them. In other words, he had targeted the group as threats to American security early on. He forged letters that were claimed to have been written by group members, followed them and even tapped their phones. Somehow (probably through threats) he even convinced former members to turn on their own or become informants. The worst was probably when under his orders the Chicago Police murdered 21-year-old Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton while he slept in his bed. This aspect, which has been largely glossed over, of the FBI and law enforcement undertaking whatever means they could to break up the group becomes a focal point here. The media is not without blame here. They really used the blacks vs. police angle to sell the story and make the members of The Black Panthers out to be vicious and violent.
Wisely Nelson does not spread himself too thin and try to cram everything into his roughly 2 hour documentary. Much of the history of the group and how it formed is just briefly touched upon. He does focus on the grass-roots organization that rose up in opposition to police brutality against African-Americans, which again draws some parallels to today. African-Americans were the population who suffered most during a tough economic time and that poverty made them even more vulnerable and marginalized than they previously were. Not attempting to ignore the flaws within the group like in-fighting over goals and mission statements, Nelson does show how the group suffered under an abundance of in fighting.
Plenty to learn here (like for me, I did not know that at its height The Black Panthers was a largely female run organization) and tons to digest. Much of it not easy to swallow. This is an important film about a turbulent era in U.S. history.