Growing up as an American public school student meant I spent a good portion of my education learning about the civil rights movement.
Growing up as an American public school student in mostly white southeast Kansas, however, meant my education on this period in history was limited. We learned about sit-ins, bus boycotts, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. But when it came to the Black Panthers, I was taught virtually nothing. I can vaguely recall a high school teacher mentioning Huey Newton, and showing photos of John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. That’s it.
We didn’t hear about the origins of the Black Panthers, or their active improvement of local communities. We didn’t hear about the personalities that created both important exposure and also infighting. We didn’t hear the story of the federal government’s fear of the Panthers or its insidious undercover missions, whose implementation prompted senseless killing and violent responses.
What we didn’t hear, in short, is everything The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution covers.
The documentary film was screened as part of this year’s March on Washington Film Festival (July 15-25), a two-week series of screenings, panel discussions, and events about the legacy of the civil rights movement. The screening was followed by a panel that included producer Laurens Grant, as well as Marshall Eddie Conway and Paul Coates, two former leaders of the Baltimore Black Panther party.
The vast amount of information covered in the film is fascinating and revealing — not only of the history of the Black Panther party, but of the way it is often falsely presented to the American public as a singularly disruptive and destructive force. Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution paints a full, nuanced portrait of the party, and what it meant to those involved. That these accounts haven’t been widely known before now is frustrating, though, sadly, not surprising.
The film follows the Black Panther party from its beginnings — as a reaction to the violence and systemic racism continually perpetrated against the black community across the U.S. — through its rise — and role in the popularity of the Black Power movement — to its eventual decline, after government interference and attacks on party members led to internal division and violent escalation against law enforcement.
Along the way, interviews with former party members, as well as a rich archive of photos, video, and audio tell stories of specific experiences within the history of the Black Panthers. There’s the story of female party members working around the clock to support the movement, battling rampant chauvinism in addition to systemic racism. There’s also the story of the Panther 21, a group of 21 party members arrested in New York and released after an epic eight-month trial (a story that’s easily worth a film of its own).
The film does the important job of showing the similarities between racist law enforcement practices of the time and practices still used today. When archival footage rolls of police tanks taking to the streets, it’s scarily identical to images from the Ferguson protests just last year. An interview with J. Edgar Hoover in which he claims that "justice is merely incidental to law and order" is shocking for its boldness, but his words then are still present in actions now.
After the film, Coates and Conway were on hand to add their own perspective on the history of the party in which they were involved. Conway spent 44 years in prison after being framed in the killing of a police officer, during which time Coates (father of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates) assumed leadership of the Baltimore Black Panther chapter.
In discussing the legacy of the Panthers on the state of civil rights and movements today, Coates said, "It’s a history and legacy of struggle — a model of selfless struggle and undaunted struggle that carries down generations."
This statement is reflected throughout The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which not only tells the story of that struggle, but also tells of the mark it left on those who were part of it, and its ongoing relevance still today.
WATCH the trailer here.