The title might seem tragic. Stanley Nelson's welcome doc banners the Black Panthers as the “vanguard” of the revolution, a claim that's true according to the Panthers' own terms. The leather-jacketed crew carrying rifles onto the floor of the California state assembly in 1967? That was the berets-and-afros vanguard of the then-nascent Black Panther Party, and that image—of resistance, of power, of black-is-beautiful Afrocentrism reborn as hard urban cool—immediately franchised the party in cities across the country. Coolness was important, of course: “It was a rhythm,” Akua Njeri says in the film, snapping her fingers. “It was a rhythm to how we spoke. It was a rhythm to how we talked.” What do you think scared more the powers that be? The Panthers' allure or their avowed program, which called for the end of the ongoing “terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people”?
But within half a decade, the Panthers would mostly be a memory, one recalled differently in different strains of American life: Maybe you grew up with the idea of the Panthers as a promise unfulfilled, as one forceful shove against the oppressive forces guaranteeing there's little true equality. That's what makes that subtitle sting: Vanguard of the Revolution? What revolution? Shouldn't it have come by now?
Or maybe you grew up white, sold on the myth that the Panthers just might get back together and come to kill you personally. FOX News peddles that one to this day, whenever they pretend that the couple of Black Panther cosplayers who showed up at Philadelphia polling places on recent election days constitute a crisis to the republic.
More a corrective than a revelation: Nelson's The Black Panthers makes clear that in that case, FOX was just doing what broadcasters do—playing the hits. Since J. Edgar Hoover declared the Panthers the John Dillingers of the late '60s, Official America has found black anger a useful excuse to crack down on blacks and keep whites terrified. Never mind the Panthers setting up breakfast programs for local kids, or Bobby Seale himself proclaiming, “We don't hate anybody because of their color. We hate oppression.” (Sadly, Seale is not interviewed for the film.) After Richard Nixon's election, police raids on Panther lairs became even more deadly than before. The brazenness of the shooting of Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police will shock even the people who have studied every recent video of trigger-happy cops.
The film, with its traditional mix of talking heads and vintage footage, does not try to hide the Panthers' advocacy of violence. It's honest about schisms in the chapters, especially between party members favoring armed insurrection and those who found community improvement a more satisfying and achievable goal than the overthrow of the U.S. government. Nelson shows us Eldridge Cleaver telling an audience, “I say that Ronald Reagan is a punk, a sissy and a coward, and I challenge him to a duel.” Cleaver follows that up with a fantasy of beating the then-California governor to death with a marshmallow. That's cute and all, but the comedy withers when Cleaver decides that the Panther method of policing the police, of eyeballing cops in armed silence, is no longer enough, then encourages Bobby Hutton and other young Panthers into ambushing Oakland officers.
Panthers, historians, journalists and even some ex-cops attest on camera here that those schisms were encouraged by Hoover's feds. That's certainly true, but the ambivalence about violence within the movement seems to have been there from the start—and with the vanguard of Panther leaders locked up so quickly after gaining prominence, it's little wonder the movement never gained true coherence.
The film bumps along with soul hits from the era, but ultimately The Black Panthers is somewhat despairing: Look at what they fought for, look at how strongly their resistance was resisted, think about how familiar the police brutality they exposed still is today. But there's reason for hope here, too. Compare the on-message clarity of #BlackLivesMatter to the movements that preceded it, and it's easy to see that the revolution remains a work in progress—and that it had a clear vanguard.