On Feb. 16, PBS aired filmmaker Stanley Nelson's feature-length documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. This documentary explores the rise of the Black Panther Party — its impact on American culture, its significance in the fight for the liberation of oppressed people, and ultimately its demise.
This film could not have aired at a better time. This fall will mark 50 years since the Black Panther Party was founded. And because of Beyoncé's recent Super Bowl halftime performance, where her background dancers wore leather jackets, big natural afro, and berets — a look made iconic by the BPP — the Party is once again a topic of discussion. As a result of her nod to the revolutionary group, people have organized an anti-Beyoncé rally and police unions have vowed security boycotts at Beyoncé concerts. Some have even gone as far as to label the BPP a terrorist organization and compare them to the Ku Klux Klan.
This is absolutely absurd, but interesting for two reasons:
- People who have either defended or ignored the existence of the KKK are finally willing to label them terrorists.
- The KKK still exists, while the BPP was thoroughly dismantled by the FBI and the U.S. government.
Vanguard of the Revolution presented the opportunity for the true nature of the Party to be shown in front of a national audience. Nelson’s film does a good job of highlighting the transition from being primarily a self-defense group to a survivalist organization helping black communities and other oppressed people to meet their basic necessities with the long-term goal of self-determination and empowerment.
The film also showed the importance of women within in the Party. Combining interviews of former Party members Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown with footage taken from rallies and programs engaging the community — such as their free breakfast for children — Nelson displays the significance of women in leadership roles, and their position as the backbone of the organization.
While Nelson’s documentary is strong in some regards, it is not without missteps. He has drawn heavy criticism from former Minister of Information Elaine Brown for his portrayal of Huey P. Newton as a “maniac…then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own ‘demonic’ behavior.”
Brown also takes Nelson to task by claiming he “reduces the massive, brutal effort by the U.S. government to destroy the Party to the story of traitor William O’Neal, who infiltrated the Illinois Chapter of the Party as an agent of the FBI.”
There are a few things that should be taken away from this documentary. Those who have fed into the negative propaganda and vicious lies that have been spread about the Black Panther Party, consequently keeping them from mainstream conversations about social movements in America, will get a glimpse at the truth. Despite having one of the most popular and effective liberation movements in American history, many people do not even learn about the Black Panther Party in school. For example, my U.S. history teacher did not even know who Huey P. Newton was until I did a Black History Month presentation about him my junior year. The FBI's COINTELPRO was effective not just in killing and destroying the lives of Party members, but also in the continual spread of misinformation about the Party’s actions and intentions.
Yes, the Black Panther Party was radical, but they held the same anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and anti-militarism views as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and legacy we continue to celebrate. They also created 35 survival programs such as free health clinics, free food programs, and free clothing programs.
And much like the Black Panther Party, the current movement for the liberation of black people in America (most commonly known as the Black Lives Matter movement) started because of the brutality black Americans face in their community by those employed by the state to protect and serve. Learning from our ancestors, the current movement also extends to other areas, seeking to dramatically transform education, employment, incarceration, environmental justice, and both local and national government. Another similarity between the two movements is the resurgence of black pride, the celebration of black culture, and the embrace of our heritage and roots.
As a Christian, I have always admired the Black Panther Party because of their undying love for the people, their commitment to community and justice, and their willingness to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for the liberation of oppressed groups both here and abroad. Though many Party members did not practice the same religion as me, and they have always been viewed as the antithesis to the Civil Rights Movement led by Christian groups and clergy, the values that they embodied and the guidelines set in their ten-point program have resonated with me and have shaped the way I involve myself in the current social movement sweeping the nation.
The similarities between 1966 and 2016 are frightening. Vanguard of the Revolution serves as a stark reminder that not much has changed in this country for black Americans. But we are here, and we are still fighting, despite knowing the full extent to which the American Empire will go to silence black outrage and destroy black unity. That should make us the vanguards of hope.