The Black Panthers: Vanguard of Revolution opens in New York at the Film Forum this week, before showing at the AMC Magic Johnson Theaters and beginning a limited national release. The film is the first feature-length documentary on the Black Panther Party, developed over the past seven years by celebrated filmmaker Stan Nelson, whose previous works include Freedom Summer and The Murder of Emmett Till.
With adept objectivity, Nelson’s telling of the Black Panthers reaches beyond the mystique of founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to weave together the many voices that allowed “Black Power” an indelible mark in American history. Presenting the stories of Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, Flores Forbes and Elbert “Big Man” Howard, among others, this film is a beginner’s guide to the Black Panthers. You will not know it all, but you walk away with a million paths of stories to further explore.
The film starts in 1967 at the birth of the party, between the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and wraps somewhere in the late 1970s. We begin in Oakland, where the organization was founded, and then leap from perspective to perspective, engaging the complexity of what may have been the last radical movement in America.
At one point, we consider the sexism within the Party; at another, we explore how the justice system went on the attack to silence the leadership to the point of literally binding and gagging Bobby Seale as he sat on trial in Chicago. You will be shook by the assassination of Fred Hampton, but if you are a Panther nerd, you will be disappointed that George Jackson and Assata Shakur do not come up in the conversation. The film offers value in presenting moments that many people are unaware of, or often do not make the general discussion of the Black Panthers.
KEEP READING: Black Panther Documentary Merely Skims The Surface Of A Complex Movement