The Black Panthers are Back

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The Black Panthers are Back

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program run by the Black Panthers. (Photo: Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch)

Seeing a documentary on the Black Panthers while sitting next to Bobby Seale is quite an experience. As we watch a press preview of the film in an East Oakland home, the co-founder of the Panthers sometimes calls out the names of old comrades as they appear on screen, or he corrects an occasional error in the film.

The documentary to be aired on PBS, "The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution," has a dramatic moment describing the 1969 Chicago 8 trial when Seale demanded the right to defend himself. The Chicago federal judge refused, and he ordered Seale shackled and gagged. As the film played audio tape of the scene, Bobby Seale, sitting next to me, recreates the sound of his speaking through the gag: "I want my freedom! I want my right to defend myself!"

"The Black Panther Party" is the latest in series of feature films and documentaries about the Oakland group that shook the establishment then -- and causes controversy even today. Right wingers claim the film ignores criminal and thuggish behavior by the group. Seale and others criticize the film for not digging deep enough into black liberation history.

In 1966 Bobby Seale and Huey Newton co-founded the Panthers in Oakland. They fought police brutality, established breakfast for children programs and called for revolution. The group quickly attracted support in the African American community but also among Latino, Asian and white activists. The FBI and local police brutally attacked the Panthers. Such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Leonard Bernstein opposed the government crackdown. By the mid 1970s, however, the Panthers ceased to function, due to harsh repression and serious political mistakes.

Since then a wide variety of film makers have taken a shot at explaining the Panther phenomena. Mario van Peebles directed a 1995 feature film "Panther," which was politically sympathetic to the Panthers but a cinematic failure. In 2001 Spike Lee directed "A Huey P. Newton Story," a dramatic one man show about Newton's life. In 2011 Swedish journalists produced a documentary, "The Black Power Mixtape, (1967-1975)," which provided interesting background footage but little analytic insight.

The new PBS documentary, by African American director Stanley Nelson, takes the best shot yet. Nelson combines interviews with over a dozen ex-Panthers, archival footage, 1960s R&B songs and an original score. He shows that Panthers had a cultural as well as political impact. The Panthers' trademark natural Afro hair styles, dark glasses and black leather jackets became wildly popular.

The documentary reminds us that police brutality goes back long before the current Black Lives Matter protests. In 1966 the Panthers sought to deter police misconduct by following Oakland police patrolling in black neighborhoods. They openly carried loaded weapons, perfectly legal at the time.

Nowadays right wingers from white suburbs carry arms into Starbucks in defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. In 1966 African Americans legally carrying guns caused a right wing freak out, as it would today. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan and conservative legislators quickly moved to ban the carrying of loaded firearms without a special permit.

The documentary builds tension as Panthers carry arms to Sacramento to protest the gun law changes. Bobby Seale and other Panthers were arrested, but the incident electrified the black community and made the group nationally famous.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Panther membership grew from 400 to a peak of 5000, with 49 chapters around the country, according to Seale. Referring to the system, Seale told me, "You killed Malcolm X. You killed Martin Luther King. And all you did was to cause my organization to spread across the United States of America."

As the Panthers grew, local police and the FBI cracked down hard. The FBI implemented the secret Counter Intelligence Program (CONINTELPRO) aimed at stopping all black revolutionaries through direct attacks and by fomenting violent dissent between and among groups. The film shows with chilling accuracy the FBI and local police conspiracy to murder Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton and dozens of others around the country.

The documentary includes interviews with former police officers and FBI agents, but clearly sides with the Panthers. And that pro-Panther perspective irks right-wing critics.

One reviewer in the Daily Beast attacked the documentary for failing to mention Panther torture and murder, even of their own members. Panthers did kill one another, particularly after a political split that pitted followers of Huey Newton against those of Eldridge Cleaver, an ultra leftist later turned Christian conservative.

Bobby Seale points out that that government agents instigated much of that violence. "Those shootings happened because they had infiltrators to encourage party members to fight each other," he said.

However, the Panthers always skated a thin line between revolutionary and criminal activity. As a source of fund raising, some Panthers partnered with criminals to rob banks and deal drugs. Particularly after the Newton-Cleaver split, criminality became more common.

"Huey got into the drug trade," said Seale. Seale says Newton was bipolar, with serious alcohol and drug addiction problems. He agrees with the former Panthers in the documentary who say the party had created a cult of personality around "a fucking maniac." Newton died in 1989 during a drug deal gone bad.

Seale criticizes the documentary because it doesn't delve deeply enough into the role played by the FBI and undercover agents. He also says the film fails to provide enough information about the Party's organizing strategy and electoral plans in the early 1970s. Seale gives the film a rating of 5 on a scale of 10.

Elaine Brown, Panther chair in the mid-70s, criticized the documentary in the New York Times. She said the documentary turned Panther history into "a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America's oppressive status quo."

Greg Morozumi, an organizer with the Oakland cultural group East Side Arts Alliance, viewed the documentary with Seale and I. He notes that the documentary is extremely timely because of the current mass movement against police brutality. But he says the "film doesn't place the Panthers in a broader context of the black power and black liberation movements of the time." None of the other black revolutionary groups of that era are even mentioned, he notes.

Such criticisms notwithstanding, "The Black Panther Party" serves as an excellent introduction to the political and cultural impact of the Panthers. Hopefully even better documentaries will come along next fall for the Party's 50th anniversary.

"The Black Panther Party" is playing in select theaters nationwide and will air in the winter of 2016 on the PBS series Independent Lens.

Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich is a journalist who writes frequently on foreign policy, arts, and culture. His most recent book is, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky (Prometheus Books). See website or follow him on Twitter: @ReeseErlich

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