When my former colleague Jason Parham reviewed Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution last September, much of its retrospective content (dating back to the ‘60s) was uncannily relevant, given the growing amplification of dissatisfaction over racial inequality in this country, including but not limited to the routine police killings of unarmed black people. Parham wrote:
That this film arrives during a time of great social and political unrest is no mistake. The current Black Lives Matter movement is but an extension of the Panthers’ core goals and ideologies. Nelson’s film, while remarkable and revelatory, is a profound reminder that a free people—the free people Stokely Carmichael spoke so lovingly about—can never fully outrun history. But maybe that’s the true price of freedom and maybe the Panthers knew that best: the acknowledgement that liberation—when one is allowed to determine his or her own outcome without restriction and color-coded prejudice—comes only through unceasing battle.
After a theatrical run last fall (and festival screenings before that), The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution aired on PBS last night and is streaming in its entirety on PBS’s website for the next month. The film is more relevant than ever in contemporary culture, thanks to the invocation of the Panthers in Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. “When I started making the film (eight years ago), I thought I was making a historical documentary. And little did I know that it would become so relevant with Black Lives Matter and such visible killing of black people by police. Beyoncé just took it to a new height with what she did at the Super Bowl,” Nelson recently told the Philadelphia Daily News.
That performance was then misinterpreted by idiots, who didn’t understand what the Black Panthers were about (self-defense and self-sufficiency, among other things), who think that resistance to racism is somehow as bad as or worse than racism. “The Black Panthers from its inception until its demise, were never this black separatist, anti-white organization. Their ideology was ‘organize your own,’” is how Jakobi Williams (author of From the Bullet to the Ballot Box: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago) put it to the Daily News.
A brief synopsis of the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program is in the clip above. It’s a sharp, reasonable course of action (Point 10: We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace), and that so little of it has been achieved decades later is depressing. Too many people with too much power in this country still find the idea of equality terrorizing.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution isn’t perfect, but it delivers more nuance about a misunderstood group than you’re ever likely to get in a two-hour portion (you get the feeling that whole documentaries could be made regarding women in the group, as well as its free-breakfast program, which as Parham pointed out “at its peak, served 20,000 meals across 19 different communities every week”). But then, neatly summarizing the Panthers just wouldn’t be doing them justice, either. As former Panther Ericka Huggins points out in the doc, “We were making history and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.”