I recently watched Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution. While the documentary is clearly pro-Panther, I nevertheless found it to be a surprisingly critical examination of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The film focuses on many of the well-remembered legacies left by the Panthers–such as their Free Breakfast for Children Program, their armed-yet-non-violent storming of California’s capitol building in Sacramento, and the mass movements to free Huey Newton, the Chicago 7, and the New York 21–as well as a few of the negative legacies, typified by the power struggle between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale’s failed bid for Mayor of Oakland.
The common theme of the many positively depicted events was that they were led by the Panthers–the vanguard–but galvanized the support of way more people than the Panthers could ever have incorporated into their party structure. The negative portrayals of the Panthers focused almost exclusively on the Panthers’ internal party politics. Given this depiction, it seems that Nelson–like myself–agrees with my former professor Frances Fox Piven that organizations are generally useful to liberation struggles insofar as they contribute to mass mobilizations. Activities designed to raise the power or profile of individual organizations–fundraising, lobbying, and running electoral campaigns, whether for positions of leadership within the organization itself, or within the context of the U.S. political system–not surprisingly tend to only benefit the party, often at the expense of the movement as a whole. In this way, one might say that the Panthers’ successes are symbolized not by the Party, but by the parties the Panthers provoked–the Free-Breakfast dinner parties, the 1968 party in Chicago’s Grant Park, the armed block parties in Oakland, the fancy hotel parties in New York.
The Daily Beast responded to Nelson’s documentary with a pair of dueling op-eds by journalist Michael Moynihan and former Panther Chairman Elaine Brown, both of whom have nothing but vitriol for Nelson’s depiction of the Panthers. Both articles excoriate Nelson–justifiably so in this case–for hiding the Panthers’ communist ideology, and unjustifiably for his lack of focus on the violent actions of each side. Brown claims that “Nelson reduces the massive, brutal effort by the U.S. government to destroy the party,” even though this was one of the most frequently recurring themes of what Moynihan calls a “lumbering two hour film.” Moynihan retaliates in exactly the way an FBI agent or White Supremacist would, by spending most of his article vividly describing murders and torture committed in the service of the Panthers’ party apparatus, and lambasts Nelson for “whitewashing” Huey Newton’s history of physical and sexual abuse, even though it was while watching Nelson’s film that I first learned of this abuse. Chairman Brown, on the other hand, faults Nelson for not appreciating the enduring love for Chairman Newton in the black community, which she alleges considers “the locale of Huey’s murder to be sacred ground,” which is exactly what somebody invested in a personality cult would say.
Taken together, The Daily Beast‘s op-eds remind me of nearly every article I read about the Maoist revolutions in Nepal and India, which is what prompted me to travel there to cover them myself. Both sides waged media campaigns that fixated on the crimes committed by their opponents, while ignoring the crimes committed by themselves. In this propaganda war, the material for either side is practically endless, considering revolutionary wars are not dinner parties, but sustained, horrific events that drive ordinary people to commit crimes they’d never imagined they could, and which often drive both victims and perpetrators insane if made to reflect too deeply upon their experiences.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens with a metaphor, where three blind men touch different parts of an elephant and alternately conclude that it is a wall, a spear, and a snake. Like these blind men touching an elephant, seeing this movie will not make you fully understand the legacy of one of America’s most polarizing mass organizations, operating during one of America’s most politically significant decades. Still, the film delivers what it can in–what was for me a riveting–two hours. Plus, any film that pisses off in equal measure dogmatists on both sides of the equation is a success to me.
Nelson’s film has helped us think about and discuss an important movement, and your observartions help advance the discussion. Among many other things, the film reminded me that the Panthers’ idea of unleashing a revolution was quixotic at best, crazy at worst. Given demographics, history and the power structure, African Americans were not going to take power or lead a revolution in the United States. But there was indeed a “liberation struggle,” a liberation of Blacks’ sense of themselves and a seeking to get out from under Jim Crow, let’s call it, even if we are referring to Northern cities. In this latter regard, I think the Panthers, their shortcomings notwithstanding, made positive contributions, perhaps quite positive ones.