Stanley Nelson’s critically-acclaimed documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution aired on PBS Tuesday and quickly became the number one trending topic on Twitter as users tuned in to the production in droves.
While the film wasn’t without its controversy (it’s been decried by former Panther president Elaine Brown), it was a powerful chronicle of the Party’s enduring, often misunderstood legacy.
It’s impossible to break down an entire history of the Black Panther Party in one documentary, much less in one post, but here are ten powerful, fascinating, surprising and devastating takeaways from the film.
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE PARTY
The Black Panther Party, originally the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was established in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
The Panthers tag line, “We serve the people” is exemplified by their Ten-Point Program that promotes equality, education, freedom and employment. They demanded an end to police brutality and the systematic murder of Black people.
While Newton and Seale were the creators of the party, according to Nelson’s documentary, Eldridge Cleaver, the notorious but highly-praised author and essayist, helped bring a mainstream legitimacy to the party when he joined in 1966.
Cleaver was known for his magnetic presence and often-incendiary language. To illustrate this point, the film showed a clip of Cleaver challenging then California governor Ronald Reagan to a duel. He told a crowd it would be to the death or at least until Reagan said “Uncle Eldridge.”
In 1967, Huey P. Newton fatally shot officer John Frey in “self-defense.” Although the details of the incident were sketchy, Frey died from four gunshot wounds, while Newton was left with a bullet wound to the abdomen. Newton was arrested while in his hospital bed and infamously handcuffed to the bed and placed on heavily-armed guard watch. Newton’s arrest prompted “Free Huey” protests, which exploded around the nation.
“WE HAD SWAG”
The Panthers, made up of mostly young men and women, donning their signature afros, berets and jackets, became a phenomenon for their self-professed “swag.” With guns in-hand and their bold declarations of Black power and beauty, the Panthers became an instant cultural phenomenon.
Even the “ugly” among them took on a certain appeal, former Panther Akua Njeri said. “In the party, it was just something that gave them this tremendous sex appeal.”
Late activist Julian Bond further emphasized the importance of the look: “The Panthers didn’t invent it, but they made urban Black beautiful.”
The Panther’s breakfast program was inspired by data that found children are less attentive when they don’t eat a balanced meal in the morning. Through social programs like these, the party gained the respect of the community leading to increased membership.
By 1969, more than 20,000 children in 19 cities were receiving full breakfast before going to school.
Other social programs included free health clinics, senior citizen protection programs, prison outreach programs and more.
WOMEN OF THE PARTY
Despite the enduring image of masculine figures toting guns and wearing berets, the film revealed that the majority of the Panther Party members were actually women. Still, despite preaching equality, misogyny claims plagued the Party and female members were often objectified. In an effort to promote equality, men and women switched roles. Women were given guns and men sent to the kitchen to prepare meals for the breakfast program.
In her commentary, Elaine Brown noted that while the Party did the best they could to control the imagery, it wasn’t always easy.
“We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven,” she quipped, in a particularly memorable quote from the film.
One of the Panthers’ greatest strengths was their firm grasp and understanding of the media and how to manipulate it. The Black Panther newsletter, which was distributed nationwide, was described by former member Omar Barbour as “the lifeblood of the party.” One of the deepest connections forged between the Panthers and their audience was with the artwork in the paper. The infamous depiction of a police officer portrayed as a pig premiered on the cover of the publication.
Bobby Hutton was the first Panther gunned down by police in 1968 following a standoff. He was 17 years old at the time and had been the Party’s first recruit. Cleaver was also wounded in the standoff, which garnered national media attention. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, including Marlon Brando and James Baldwin.
Later, as tensions between the party and the FBI escalated, more Panthers would die at the hands of police. Perhaps most notable among these was the death of 21-year-old Fred Hampton.
Following the deaths of Hutton and Martin Luther King in 1968, BPP recruitment was up more than ever and the party was seeing a number of rising stars. Fred Hampton, an incredibly gifted speaker, longtime activist and powerful leader, was among the most dynamic. But his talents came at a huge price, as he was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover and other U.S. government officials, who deliberately painted the party as terrorists and sought to stop the rise of a “Black messiah”-type leader. In Hampton, they saw that leader they so feared.
One of Hampton’s greatest strengths was his ability to unite divergent groups, including Puerto Rican group Young Lords, poor white group, the Young Hillbillies, and more. Hampton was successfully building his own veritable rainbow coalition and the FBI saw that as an incredibly deep threat.
In December 1969, with a takedown partially organized by informant (and Hampton bodyguard) William O’Neal, who provided blue prints and layouts to the feds, Hampton was executed in his sleep. Authorities claimed they were attacked by the “vicious” Panthers. Yet, only one shot was fired from a Panther gun, which went off when Mark Clark was fatally shot.
Hampton’s death was part of a government-illustrated takedown of the Panthers, whom FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared “the biggest threat to the nation.” Authorities were encouraged to go after the Panthers’ personal lives in attempts to destroy them, and to get creative in their tactics. Through informants, the FBI also supplied the Panthers with guns and then turned around and told local police that they were armed illegally with the sole intent to kill police.
This continued into the ultimate division of the Party, following the release of Huey P. Newton from jail and his dissent from Eldridge Cleaver’s faction of the party. Fueled by the FBI’s creation of a culture of paranoia, the division between Cleaver and Newton ultimately contributed to the decline in the Party’s popularity, according to Nelson’s film.
It’s difficult to include all of the notable moments from the documentary, as there were so many worth mentioning. This included the Panther 21, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown’s run for Oakland office, the establishment of the international chapter of the party and more.
What were the standout moments in the film to you?