The story of the Black Panthers has rarely been told on film, and the few times it has, their depiction has left much to be desired. Disappointingly, their most resonant portrayal may be in the reactionary Forrest Gump, when Forrest’s girlfriend is beaten by her white, Panther-supporting lover. Stanley Nelson Jr.’s new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution seems designed to revise such portrayals. It’s a fair, comprehensive (though admittedly not complete) depiction of the political party and activist group that changed the way Americans think about race 50 years ago, even if it lacks the revolutionary flair of its subject.
Rarely does a film come along whose content is in such total opposition to its form. The Panthers were a radical social justice group that shook up the establishment and scared suburban America to its core. The film, on the other hand, treats its subject like any other political event, using talking heads, black-and-white photos, and Walter Cronkite-led news footage to tell the story of the unconventional group in the most conventional form possible.
The early scenes are the most vital, as they demonstrate the combustible social environment that led to the Panthers’ creation. While the civil rights movement was focused on the South, systemic racism and police violence were being felt no less acutely in the Bay Area. The violent images that appear throughout the film evoke a visceral reaction, especially because they bear such strong similarities to images we see on the news these days. It is tempting to refer to the timing of this film’s release as propitious, but the truth is more damning: The story of the Black Panthers will always be timely until America solves its racial issues.
As it stands, the horrifying images in the film are a lightning bolt connecting 1965 to 2015. Black Lives Matter activists are trying to make change today, but their tactics are downright tame compared to the Panthers. Huey Newton, the Panthers’ first leader, devised the strategy: Members followed police officers around, and when they pulled their gun on an unsuspecting black person, the Panthers pulled theirs. When the California State Assembly began debating a bill that would have limited their ability to carry guns, the Panthers showed up in Sacramento with their guns loaded and unconcealed.
Unfortunately, the film can’t keep up with the Panthers’ gusto. From this dynamic opening salvo, the film quickly loses its momentum. Certainly, the movement had its share of dramatic touchstones—the police shooting of Newton is the most chilling—but the film is content to merely rattle off a list of events and actions, never arriving at a satisfying narrative.
But even without a strong perspective, there are enough angles that everyone will find a way to connect to their struggle. For example: As an armed militia, the Panthers fought to maintain their right to bear arms, a position that attracted strange bedfellows. In one surreal scene, we see home video of a Panther speaking at a meeting of the Young Patriots, a group of white activists from Appalachia. If the pairing seemed strange back then, today it looks dangerous and even exciting. With cultural divisiveness at an all-time high, the Black Panthers come across as an open-minded group and a galvanizing force, which tells us as much about our own time than the one that they occupied.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution opens Friday, Sept. 18 at E Street Cinema.