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Black Panthers Protest At NYC Courthouse

Source: David Fenton / Getty

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.

Black Panther Demonstration

Source: David Fenton / Getty

In two hours, Nelson delivers many snapshots from across America first hand from people who lived, and often died terribly, for the cause of the Party’s Ten-Point Program.  And as the film personalizes the experiences of those who made up an organization known for its style, bravado and iconographic fists, as well as incessant message, it is easy to see how their values were very much aligned with those of today.

For the sake of ending police brutality, mass incarceration, and other institutionalized forms of oppression, masses of youth (because it seems almost all Party members were between childhood and age 30) took up their right to bear arms, evoking such a movement that is was mainly at the hands of the FBI the Party saw its decline. It is also why it is gut-wrenching to see those who were murdered for their affiliation.

Where other films like this year’s Netflix’s documentary on Nina Simone, or the 1995 biopic Panther, will leave you with poignant emotional reaction, Nelson’s work is stark in that it is purely textbook.  You will not be spooked with rage, (although there are stories that will leave you volleying between bafflement, heartbreak, and meditation) but rather intellectually challenged by all the personal recounts of a time that is parallel to, yet so so far away from, today.  You will experience the variety of voices who were involved, and you will not be directed on what to think.  It is disorienting to experience the Black Panther Party with such objectivity, but that is what makes this a solid and distinct telling of what has become lore for revolutionary hearts.  (Although, Elaine Brown has expressly noted her dissent with the film. )

In tracing through other films on the subject of the Black Panther Party, there are standouts A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) and the Black Power Mixtape Night 1967-1975 (2011), both documentaries, as well as the recent narrative film starring Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, and Jamie Hector, Night Catches Us (2010).  For as much as the Black Power fist means to culture, the cinematic exploration has been rare, and the field is wide for exploring the internal and personal costs of rebellion, as well as its national impact.

When Nelson set out to make this film, police brutality and mass incarceration were not on the national agenda.  Trayvon Martin was just another kid, and Sandra Bland was just a recent college graduate.  While the film studies a past national boiling point from the vantage of retrospect, we are now watching it with a particular perspective.  This is the film you see with at least one friend and debate whether or not we are still capable of revolution and if social media campaigns make a difference.

This is certainly an important film to support in the theater, as it serves as statement art in an era that remains well-worn from America’s last violent revolution, which may have been that of the Black Panther Party.  In the midst of such anger and frustration, Stan Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of Revolution offers space for reflection and strategy. Having attended a screening with a friend, it was hard not to carry on for an hour contemplating all that we saw and how it holds up to today’s form of dissent that often is waged via social media.  This is something that the filmmaker also acknowledges, as there is a #PanthersTaughtMe campaign to offer a ground for the thoughts that will be sparked by this wide-reaching examination of the last heroes of resistance in America.  And given that the film was partially funded by a substantial Kickstarter campaign that supported the theatrical, hopefully, there will be many voices engaged in modernizing an impact first socialized with a fist.

For information on show times, visit, and take part in the conversation on being revolutionary by visiting

Black Panther Doc Merely Skims The Surface Of A Complex Movement  was originally published on