Approximately fifty years after the movement’s inception, filmmaker Stanley Nelson released “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its impact on civil rights. The third and final film in the Independent Lens Pop-Up series premiered at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on the evening of February 11. It aired later on PBS channels on February 16 at 9 pm.
The documentary highlighted the role of The Black Panthers as major catalysts for a cultural, political awakening for black people in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the significant influence they had in shaping a new, more radical, American culture.
Nelson incorporated footage that captured the raw pride and excitement of young BPP members and supporters who genuinely believed they were at the cusp of a revolution, but nothing was more awe inspiring and captivating than the movement’s leaders. Archival footage of the late (and great) Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fred Hampton was featured in addition to personal interviews with prominent surviving members of the original BPP, such as Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, and Ericka Huggins. A diverse range of perspectives from that time was also covered, involving an eclectic group of policemen, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters, and detractors.
The interviews with former Black Panther members provided the most insight about their original goal, which was a non-violent approach to bringing attention to the injustice, oppression, and brutality that were (and still are, very much so) linked to capitalism and systemic racism.
After the movie, those in attendance gathered into small groups with specific questions to facilitate conversation. Mia Henry, the Executive Director of the Arcus Center, said, “The purpose [of these events] is to have the community engaging and having in depth conversations on how to advance social justice.”
I participated in a cohort that included four women who grew up in the pivotal era during which the BPP was seeking to drastically transform the system. Recent K graduate, Morgan Kiah K’14, acknowledged that it was one thing to listen to interviews on-screen, but to be able to discuss, in person, with women whose adolescences were defined by the presence and power of the BPP, was an incredible opportunity.
Together, we exchanged our reactions to the film and critiques of how a dynamic political and social transformation could be so violently sabotaged by our own government via the FBI.
We noted that the movement’s causes, with slogans like “power to the people” and “creating a better world,” have become relevant once again in an era of intersectional activism, where, in the past two years, we have seen the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and tense relations between African American communities and the police.
The question was posed to the group, “What gains have been made [between now and then]?” Among the flurry of answers, we agreed that activism by women and members of the LGBTI community is remarkably more visible and central to the Black Lives Matter movement than to the BPP, which is most definitely a gain.
As the event ebbed to its conclusion, Sarah Whitney K’15 articulately reminded the group that the more we study our history, the less likely we are to repeat past mistakes, and this documentary film could be an especially useful tool to examine the BPP as a great model to build from as we collectively organize for social justice on our campus and in our wider community.