‘THE BLACK PANTHERS: Vanguard of the Revolution’, 2015

An amazing archival & living history document, I was lucky enough to catch a PBS screening on my TV yesterday.

All these people I had heard tell about, but never really knew the facts about – came to life with wall-to-wall archival photos. The historical record, fleshed story & behind-the-scenes narratives are provided by a wide array of players – from all sides of the story: from FBI informants to the very compelling first person accounts provided by luminaries such as: KATHLEEN CLEAVER, ERIKA HUGGINS & JAMAL JOSEPH. All three, still very much alive, strong & vital . . . and, who had been there. in person, played a role, & lived through it. how can you beat that ?

so often with these historical PBS documentaries, fascinating as they are, we have only the archival footage, the old sienna, or black & white photos, the strips of journals and scraps of letters. dry, crusty, newspaper clippings – imbedded, colored, intentionally or not, and still interesting, don’t get me wrong – with the ‘bias’ of their times, which is invaluably telling – in its own way.

here, we have the real voices of a remarkable generation – an incredible oral history rolls out, closely following the chronological timeline of the events, and enriching our ‘take’ beyond all hope & imagination. It’s really a remarkable accomplishment. the film has a beautiful cinematic rhythm, too. not too shrill nor militant in tone – but it ‘packs’. the archival footage of then FBI Director J. EDGAR HOOVER – proves our by now, only ‘inherited’ subliminal thoughts on the guy – to be right on. ugly, ugly as sin. secret files, unfair trials, brutality, killings, by outright assassination, or by paper trails, as in no true affordable legal representation, etc. etc. at one point it even drops that even the ‘personal’ security guard with . . was it Fred Hampton or Huey Newton, or both – was a federal agent/informant.

on the other side, although the empowerment was real, and the uniform went a long way towards making the exploitive white folks wake up, and feel threatened, the proud afros, the cinematic black leather jackets, and the ubiquitous guns, was not so much truly terrorist in nature – as it was posing. strutting. these guys weren’t thugs, they were pop cultural visionaries, & as I write that – hope I’m not offending anybody – from the perspective of 2016 – they didn’t bomb schools, derail trains, blow-up suicide, mass machine gun, or poison. they walked their walk, they talked their talk, they strutted their stance. it was a form of power, but it was not terrorist, as we know it. it was militant, it was organized, it had a target, but it was also kind of by and for ‘writers’ – if you know what I mean. Bob Dylan was subversive, too. it was just finally time for a change, and these guys seized it. as far as I could see, they got pretty beat up, too. in the process. it was urban resistance, the militant style was their most potent weapon.

for artists, I think we all love anything ‘archival’ and esp of the photographic record . . one of the inherent visual strengths of the film – is just watching the self-empowerment & pride that glows out from these young strong faces. usually all we get to see in PBS records of the history of the USA . . are the beat-downs, the sadly mis-used & doomed genius musicians, and the true root/giants of our culture . . or the severely kicked-in-the-backside, if not lynched, downtrodden ordinary folk from the Jim Crow era. ok, occasionally we get brilliant film portraits of the modern gifted black women writers, like Zora Neal Huston and Alice Walker. this doc was so much different. you had to wonder, over and over – at the power of the Party, which came, truly – from within.

the other surprising aspect of the film, that will captivate artists is the actual artwork that runs through the film, and even informs the film’s final credits – artwork by EMORY DOUGLAS – the “Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture and chief art director for their newspaper for 12 years.” Today we would call that – an indie zine !! a cross between folk lore, folk art, and mid-century revolutionary art. And lucky for us, as this documentary is made to celebrate the 50th (!!) of the movement – a very youthful and sweet Mr. Emory Douglas is still around and kicking, teaching, and making art . . to tell us his story – in the first person. priceless. I always saw the soulful woodblock print-type art. . on the covers of the books by the black woman writers I so revere, I never knew from where it had sprung, now I do. boy, is his time for global recognition overdue, or what !!

though of course, following the lives and different sets of circumstances of the various leaders, and even the heroic small ‘folks’ who get caught up in the party’s momentum – they all glowed with charisma and down home fire, coming from NYC 2016 – you can’t not appreciate their street style. and smarts. drives. dreams, goals. just such a beautiful, beautiful generation. again, I’m not saying this, to be smart-ass, nor to trivialize their fight, plight, brutalization, tragedy & the crass covert way the American system ‘played’ them, and the so-called ‘democratic’ gov’t failed them. except in New York, bye the way, witness the ultimate freedom of the New York 21.
just put it this way: the white cops, and the white feds look like mad-crazed un-educated nasty, rural dogs. fat, sweaty, mean, ill-clothed, and just so full of fear. such an attractive look, no wonder time is on the Black panther side, you are what you – eat.

there is one other one small slice of cinematic telling included here, that maybe won’t mean much to many, and . . if you blink you’ll miss it, so I’m mentioning it. and that’s the brief alliance of the Black Panther Party . . with THE YOUNG PATRIOTS aka the HILLBILLY NATIONALISTS – the young revolutionary voices that sprung up out of the deep, raw poverty & the outright government abuse of the stubborn & early-rooted Appalachia. if you are into quilts, fiddles, banjos & vintage hand-painted Southern Potteries – Blue Ridge dinnerware, you know what I’m talking about. another folk art rich area of America – that also got really ripped off. American dream, right. I think they were among the first to fight in the Revolutionary War, the Mountain Boys (?), and, the first to be ripped off by the new nation – by GEORGE WASHINGTON, himself, who taxed the hell out of their whiskey & beer industry, even stole the recipe – for his own big money-making use.

so yeah, with all the authentic first-hand accounts, and the glorious, if steely archival clips . . and, ‘clips’, i.e. moving film . . not just still black & white photographs – it’s hard to believe this film comes out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party . . whose full and
official title always was – and is: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. self-defense being the key phrase.
and, after 9-11-2001, and certainly in light of the recent sad, brutal & shocking events in Paris, and elsewhere & even still here at home in the urban trenches, and it’s not just in the streets, bye the way: why isn’t . . ‘STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON’ up for an Oscar this month, why wasn’t the awesome JAMES BROWN biopic, ‘GET ON UP’ . . sweeping up at last year’s Oscars ?
don’t get me started, but even so . . repeat after 9-11, and on-wards – I think we all should really really think hard, about our ‘domestic’ policing, and I hope we can as a nation, better appreciate . . 50 years on, just how truly revolutionary their stance, their ideology, their intellect, their artistry, their power, their poetry, their militancy, their voice, their struggle . . was.

watch: ‘THE BLACK PANTHERS: Vanguard of the Revolution’ – OFFICIAL TRAILER

‘Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, CA, 1969.’