“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” directed by Stanley Nelson, is the first feature-length documentary to tell the Black Panther Party’s story from beginning to end. It is mesmerizing the entire way through, not only painting a three-dimensional picture of the Party, but lending itself to comparisons to the present day without once explicitly calling “today” into focus.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


Stanley Nelson
Detroit Film Theatre

Nelson never inserts his voice into “The Black Panthers”; former and current Panthers speak for themselves, as do journalists, FBI informants and police officers who were involved. Each tells his or her own side of a story — stories that are often neglected, forgotten or whitewashed in tellings of the Civil Rights Movement today. “The Black Panthers” deconstructs the popular conception of the Party as the trigger-happy radical alternative to civil disobedience, and it paints a vivid portrait of the Party’s charismatic leaders.

The documentary also covers much more than the timeline of events that led to the Party’s eventual split, capturing how the Black Panthers shocked and fascinated the nation. He devotes a significant amount of time to how the Black Panthers represented a different kind of pride, a new kind of fashion iconography and an obvious sex appeal that attracted young people. Former Panthers talk about how the majority of the Party was in their late teens and early twenties, and the youthful vibrancy radiated when they marched down the street. Some who joined later on discussed how the Panthers represented a new kind of image that they could aspire to as younger children.

It’s unfortunate that the chauvinist sexist aspects of the Party, while addressed, only take up a few of the 116 minutes in the documentary. However, the strength and resilience of the many black women in the Panther Party break through. Women describe answering the phones with one hand while bouncing their crying children in the other or asking to carry guns along with the men. One describes how a woman volunteered to be the first person to walk out of a house unarmed, waving a white flag in the middle of a bloody shootout with police officers.

Overall, the documentary deserved a better ending, artistically and technically. It ends with a “where are they now” epilogue, focusing on only some of the Panther’s more famous leaders, ending the dynamic story on a softer note. This concluding tactic also fails to add the element of cohesion to tie it all together. While this is unfortunate, it doesn’t detract too much from the overall work.

A documentary is only ever as good as its story, and this story is electric. It’s impossible to avert one’s eyes from the stunning black-and-white photographs and the video footage, grainy as they may be.

This story is one of anguish and heartbreak, of a collective response and rally in the face of police brutality and societal pressure to back off and back down. It is a story of the passion for change found in youth, but also of the dangers faced by movements that become too big too quickly. It is a story of hope and relentless refusal to give up the fight for justice, quiet victories and bloody defeats and unapologetic pride. In short, it’s a similar story, more or less, of the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Nelson chooses not to make any explicit comparisons to the civil rights struggle that occurs today, but the comparisons are blindingly obvious. They represent a different kind of pride in being black in the face of bigotry and hatred, heard loud and clear in their chant “Black is Beautiful.” Across social media, trends like the #melanin tag and organized events like #Blackout have taken off, especially on photo-friendly platforms like Twitter and Instagram. There are photographs of the Panthers standing in the middle of the street handing out their newspaper to people in cars, subtly highlighting the group’s recognition of the media’s impact. This makes for another comparison with the Black Lives Matter movement, which largely stems from social media. Perhaps most obviously, one of the focuses of the Panthers was police brutality, an issue that has become a focal one in the movement today. Nelson’s unflinching gaze at police brutality stripped bare doesn’t feel understated or overemphasized; it just feels like the truth. It feels familiar. This may be why the documentary hits home — it reflects it.

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