Mario Van Peebles’ semi-fictional account of the birth of the Black Panther Party has its problems. It bogs down at the end. It’s difficult to keep track of some of the characters. Nevertheless, it’s a vivid, dramatic recreation of the radical movement that led the struggle against police brutality in Oakland in the 1960s. It has a harshly critical view of black separatism and “identity politics,” quite fitting for the revolutionary Marxist group the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was. The most comically evil character in Panther is not a white man, but a black, bourgeois FBI agent who likes to preach about bootstraps, capitalism and “democracy.” One or two early scenes are better than anything in the highly acclaimed Selma. I’m not exactly sure why this film is so hard to get. There no DVD version, and used VHS copies can go for over 100 dollars. But there’s a low-res version current available on YouTube, and I’d highly recommend seeing it before it gets taken down.
Panther is told from the point of view of a semi-fictional fictional character who joined the Black Panthers when he was 16. It begins on a light note. People are hanging out on the street corners. We hear music. A little boy, riding his bike to school, precociously flirts with a woman waiting for a bus. But there’s a foreboding undercurrent. A policeman uses his hand to mimic the shape of a gun and “shoots.” Then tragedy strikes. The little boy rides out onto the street, where he’s hit by a car and killed instantly. Van Peebles lingers on the puddle of blood that forms next to his body. It’s a violent, striking image of death of innocence.
The boy’s death becomes a catalyst. A local clergyman played by Dick Gregory organizes a non-violent protest march on city hall to demand a traffic light. But the young men of the neighborhood are growing more and more impatient with the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King. Two of them, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, suggest they do more. The police will harass the march, and they want volunteers to take down badge numbers. The neighborhood cop watch program that will become the Black Panther Party for self-defense is born. The next day, a group of Panthers occupy the street corner and direct traffic. They clamp down on drug dealing and cat calling. They call out an undercover policeman. They begin to organize their neighborhood.
They are in the right place at the right time. Oakland is ready for a militant black revolutionary party. Seale and Newton brush aside a local black separatist as a middle-class collaborationist looking for an excuse not to tangle with the police. Then they get their first big break, the opportunity to work security for Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. They also need guns. Seale suggests they raise the money by selling a stock of Mao’s Little Red Book he bought in Chinatown. They recruit a Vietnam vet and Berkeley student named “Judge,” a man who will become both a key member of their organization, and its weakest link.
The semi-fictional Judge has the military experience they need to keep from getting cheated by crooked firearms dealers. But he’s also a marked man. The police threaten to charge his mother with assault unless he agrees to snitch. What Van Peebles demonstrates is that the police, then the FBI, know how to work a snitch. At first they use him as an observer, not a provocateur. As they cultivate him as their man inside the Black Panthers, they allow him to believe that he can play them even as they’re playing him. Judge even tells Seale and Newton the police have approached him.
The charismatic Huey Newton quickly becomes the star of the movement. They gain support within the black community, then support outside of the black community. They organize a free breakfast program. They stage their famous armed march on the capitol building in Sacramento. But it’s only a matter of time. The police lean hard and harder on Judge, forcing him to become a provocateur as well as a snitch. They cultivate a local drug dealer, named Sabu — Did the FBI snitch who sold out “anonymous” see Panther? — who resents the Panthers for interfering with his business. “The only color I have solidarity with is green,” he says. The FBI leans on the police to step up their game. They bring in the mafia and flood the neighborhood with drugs. Then they declare outright war, murdering Fred Hampton in his sleep, shooting up the Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, pitting one faction against another, arresting Seale, then Newton on trumped up charges. It’s only a matter of time, Judge’s police handler says. The Panthers are dead. And he’s right.
Nevertheless, if the Panthers are doomed, they make their mark. What Van Peebles demonstrates so effectively in the film is just how hungry the black community was for a group that would help liberate them from the police, who Seale explains are an occupying army inside the United States. Huey Newton, an ex law student, gains most of his success simply because he knows the law and the police don’t. Most police officers are highly limited in their intelligence. They follow orders. They don’t think independently. The sheer audacity of Newton and Seale picking up rifles and barking out quotes from the law books catches them off guard. Their methods, of course, are no longer possible since they’d no longer be very surprising. What’s more, Ronald Reagan rammed gun control through the California State Legislature. In the post-9/11 world, most big city police departments have been militarized. Even in an open carry state, they’re unlikely to allow black open carry marches the way they allow white, conservative open carry marches. But the idea of a revolutionary struggle organized around police brutality lives on. Panther was made 20 years ago, but it could have been made last year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The repressive government that destroyed the radical movements of the 1960s makes the disciplined organization of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense more relevant than ever.