Emmy Award winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s stunning new documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is the most balanced and effective portrait yet seen on the screen of the radical African American organization of the late 1960s and early 1970s .
Nelson’s strengths in his approach to the subject revolve around presenting a fuller picture of the group than has been seen before. Yes, he follows the stars such as Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton, but he also profiles the Panther’s programs, such as the free breakfasts for kids, the food banks, and the educational aspects carried out by countless non-celebrities, volunteers and ordinary people caught up in the group’s sense of direction and justice. Nelson deftly places the big ticket moments – the trials, shoot-outs, exiles and comebacks of various important persons – within the context of a broader and richer portrait of the whole movement of resistance and cultural celebration.
The result is a documentary that is a remarkably fair and balanced look at a tremendously complex social movement that has been heretofore too often lost in the easy stereotyping based on the group’s image – the black leather jackets and cool berets. Nelson highlights instead their discipline, rhetoric and genuine passion, all combining to provide real hope and a sense of direction in an age after the initial gains of the Civil Rights movement seem to have run aground.
He also covers the campaign to destroy the Panthers carried out by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. As the group came under increasing pressure from both without and within, their early gains were quickly eclipsed and the Panthers fell into factions, accelerating both their own decline and the success of the FBI’s efforts against them. By the mid-70s it all seemed just about over, with only the accompanying cultural bombast of the Blaxploitation cinematic movement remaining. Nelson’s great achievement is that he reminds us with clarity of purpose and vivid detail in execution of how and why they were important.
A footnote to all of this was explored by Nova Scotia filmmaker William D. MacGillivray a few years back when he made the CBC documentary The Panther Next Door. He profiled an exiled Black Panther Party member who fled to the Preston area and lived here for several years working for the Black United Front, providing further proof of the Black Panther’s impact and importance.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a fair-minded and absolutely enthralling documentary that captures a vital moment in African American contemporary history.