An absorbing and timely look at the Black Panther Party and American police violence
There is a temptation to laud Stanley Nelson’s thorough, absorbing and patient documentary as timely. With almost every month bringing extensive media coverage of communities in chaos as another unarmed black man is killed by police somewhere in the United States, this painstaking examination of the story of the Black Panther Party – which was founded in Oakland in 1966 to tackle racist policing head-on – feels very current. But the depressing truth is that it would have been equally valid if released at more or less any time over the past half century.
Nelson, whose CV bristles with documentaries about the history of American race relations such as 2011’s Freedom Riders, tells the story with an even hand and minimum fuss. He has assembled a lengthy list of former Party members, their lawyers, their adversaries from law enforcement, and historians to add wider context. Archive film and stills help bring the interviewees’ words to life, making this a compelling take on what remains a scarcely believable tale.
Realising that Californian law allowed citizens to carry firearms as long as they were visible, Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton decided to mount patrols with the aim of deterring violence against black people by police. Dressed in black berets and leather jackets, armed Panthers became a defining image of the ’60s. The Panthers ran programmes to give free breakfasts to children and free medical services to those who couldn’t afford healthcare, but after FBI director J Edgar Hoover labelled them the biggest internal threat to the nation, splits and schisms weakened the party. Many members spent years in prison – others were killed in shootouts with police.
The Panthers were born out of a widespread dissatisfaction with an ossified political system, and their rhetoric and their example were an inspiration. They were also the coolest thing in politics – Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda rallied to the cause; John Lennon and Yoko Ono are seen welcoming Panther leaders on to the Mike Douglas Show on TV in 1972. But, as the infighting became more debilitating than the FBI infiltration, the energy and enthusiasm ebbed away. “There was no plan B,” one former member tells Nelson. Perhaps this is the film’s most prescient aspect: to remind activists of the need to not just respond to the moment, but to build structures that will last.