This is an excellent documentary that deals with a complicated and troubled period in American history and the role in it of an organization that is still shrouded in controversy. The documentary covers the six-year period from 1967 to 1973 that saw the rise and fall of the original Black Panthers. It uses archival footage, mixed with current interviews of former members who look back on those events and provide perspective.
The film provides much needed clarity while showing both the good and the bad. It discusses the many social programs that the group organized and ran, such as free breakfast programs for school children, free health clinics, and free food for those who needed it. It pointed out that while the image that people have of the Black Panthers is of armed men in leather jackets and berets, in its heyday a majority of its members were women even though they were often treated as sexual objects.
The movement started in response to a situation that we see even now, where deeply racist police departments all over the country, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Chicago, were continuously harassing the black community. Taking advantage of the California law that allowed people to openly carry weapons, the Panthers formed armed patrols that would cruise the streets looking for police confronting black people and they would then stand at some distance and observe. They saw their movement as a form of self-defense against police brutality and hoped that their armed presence would deter overly aggressive behavior by the police. I had not realized that it was a cartoon in the Panther newspaper that originated the term ‘pigs’ for the police.
The Panthers even walked the halls of the California state capital in Sacramento, freaking out legislators and then governor Ronald Reagan, who argued that the law should be changed to disallow people from carrying guns openly in public spaces, quite a different reaction from now when the people doing this are white conservatives.
The main initial appeal of the Black Panthers was that they symbolized a new attitude in the black community, that they were fed up with being pushed around and were willing to fight back and this instilled a great deal of pride and attracted recruits from all over the country who came to Oakland, CA where the group started.
The film looks at how the US government and the FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover, as part of its infamous COINTELPRO program, infiltrated the movement with informants and provocateurs and deliberately sowed mistrust and discord and a sense of paranoia among its membership. The FBI was terrified that a ‘messiah’ (in their words) would arise from the movement who would transcend racial divisions and unite the black community with Latinos (mainly Puerto Ricans) and poor whites and they thought that Fred Hampton might be that person. The FBI masterminded the cold-blooded murder of Hampton while he slept, an event that should be remembered more widely than it is as an example of how far the government and the FBI will go to suppress any challenge.
The film does not shy away from pointing out the problems within the Panthers such as the chaotic and rapid growth of the movement and the subsequent lack of an organization to deal with it. As a result, they had no means of weeding out the many police and FBI informants who infiltrated it and sowed the seeds of dissension. It also discusses the clash of big egos that led to the downfall of the group, especially of Eldridge Cleaver (who fled to Algeria and later became a Mormon, born again Christian, and a Republican and even endorsed Reagan for president) and Huey Newton (who became a ruthless authoritarian ‘monster’ who died in a drug-related shootout in 1989). Another iconic figure of that time Bobby Seale, who along with Newton was a co-founder of the Panthers and who was famously ordered by the judge to be bound and gagged in a courtroom during the trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, later ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland and is still active in politics.
I was not in the US during the period covered by the documentary but of course had heard of the Panthers and I found this film provided a gripping and informative window into that turbulent time.
Here’s the trailer.