Documentary on Black Panther Party explores organization’s complex history

“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.” So said the iconic founding leader of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. This year marks the Black Panthers’ 50th anniversary. Founded in Oakland, California in 1966, the black nationalist organization came out of the growing Black Power movement to empower African Americans in the U.S, and across the globe, against the ills of oppression and poverty under a structurally racist system.

Newton’s quote highlights the importance of the existence of the Black Panther Party beyond one single member or leader, showing what this organization represented for a people and the struggle against inequality. The PBS network this week aired the documentary The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution. The film showcases the history of the Black Panthers in all its various shades. As one former member, Phyllis Jackson, states in the film when referring to the life and times of the Panthers, “It wasn’t easy, it was complex.”

The two-hour documentary, by director and producer Stanley Nelson, details the rich history of the party, which was its most active from 1966 to 1982. This is an ambitious task that although has its impressive moments, often leaves much to be desired, especially when it spends an extensive amount of time on a few leaders of the party, leaving a good amount unsaid about other key players. Despite this shortcoming, the rare footage, interviews by former members, and written letters make for a stylistically pleasing introduction to this important organization.

The film begins by explaining the origin of the party and why it was needed in the late sixties. It sets the background by showing the racism faced by black Americans, including: rampant police brutality in cities heavily populated by African Americans, (in particular Oakland California); poverty; and an overall “rage in the streets,” (as former party chairperson Elaine Brown puts it). It explains that the party began as a militant defense organization, expressly exercising the Second Amendment right to bear arms. From this highlight alone we see that history can often repeat itself, or is ongoing, as police brutality and the value of black lives in the United States is still a hot topic some fifty years later.

From there, the documentary moves chronologically, highlighting some key moments in the movement. Some of these moments include: the national fight to release Huey P. Newton from prison, and how the slogan “Free Huey” came about. We see evidence of the shoot-out involving Black Panther Party members Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver, which resulted in Hutton being the first Panther member killed by police. We witness leader Fred Hampton’s rise as a public figure to become Chairman, and his brutal assassination at the hands of law enforcement; and also the shifting of the Party into electoral politics with the campaign of leader Bobby Seale for Oakland Mayor and leader Elaine Brown for Oakland city council.

The film also extensively talks about the infiltration of the Party by law enforcement, led by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The film explains, through interviews with former FBI agents and police officers, that the Black Panther party was one of the main targets of the government’s Counter Intelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the FBI aimed at discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations.          

This ties into the narrative the film presents the case that the fall of the Panthers was greatly orchestrated by the U.S government, as it was seen as a major threat to the system. It goes further to argue that although the FBI set the stage for the demise of the party, it was the clashing of large personalities within the organization, mainly between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, that ultimately dealt the death blow. Impressively, with examinations like this, the film does not shy away from the darker parts of the Panthers’ history and shortcomings.

Another example of this, though brief, is the documentary taking a moment to discuss the role of women within the organization. The film cites that at the height of the party’s popularity a majority of the rank and file members were women. Yet, as Elaine Brown notes in the film, sexism was not overcome within the organization. As she puts it, “We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary Heaven,” despite the fact that gender norms were challenged in the party by allowing the women to carry weapons. 

The film itself falls short on the gender issue in that it highlights many of the major male figures of the party but does little to profile the first and only woman chairperson of the organization, Elaine Brown herself. Brown appears in a few snippets of recent interviews and a short highlight of her campaign for Oakland City Council, but unlike her male counterparts, her rise to leadership and contributions aren’t covered extensively, despite the fact that she was chair of the party for three years in Newton’s absence. Brown actually has an autobiography A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, which does a great job of addressing the intersectionality of being a woman and black within the revolutionary struggle. It is a shame that none of this is truly detailed in the documentary.

At its best, the film shows an organization, mainly made up of young people initially, who wanted to stand up and fight back against the oppression they faced. It shows the contributions they made in uplifting a community through public programs and revolutionary ideals. In the year 2016, we have the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and a society that still faces much of what the Black Panthers were fighting against in the 1960s. That is what makes this documentary so timely and powerful even if it only chips away at the tip of the iceberg regarding the complexities of the movement. If nothing else it can encourage those that watch the film to dig deeper into the history of the party, which will forever be remembered as a key influencer in the struggle for black liberation.

Photo: Black Panther Party women – Screen shot from trailer 


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.