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cinematic representations of the black panther party

black panthers

I had been under the false impression that when it came to the representation of The Black Panther Party it would be limited to a handful of texts but on closer examination a number of films and documentaries have been made since the 1960s. How significant and decisive these films have been in shaping public opinion on The Black Panther Party remains unanswered. I would argue that Hollywood continues to side step black history and whilst films have appeared on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (both backed by influential and prominent black artists), groups including the Black Panthers and leaders like Martin Luther have been ignored. It seems extraordinary that Hollywood has yet to make even a standard mainstream biopic on Martin Luther given his iconic cultural status. Maybe it’s not surprising that Spike Lee has one time or another been linked to numerous projects on black America with little if any of them given the green light by the studios. I’m not arguing that black film makers have a social, moral and political obligation to act as a voice for the wider community but barring Spike Lee a stronger and more vibrant political cinema should be in operation right now for black film makers. What we are faced with at the moment is the buffoonery of Tyler Perry’s cinema which has been criticised by Spike Lee as a reversion back to the coon stereotype. Personally, I have very little time for such apolitical regressive work and whilst Precious was embraced as a revelation it could do little to exorcise its dependency on sentimentality.

The Black Panther Party is still projected as an extremist organisation and whilst literature offers a revisionist and realistic view the same cannot be said for cinema. Realistic, authentic and representative works have come from the documentary form whilst the brevity of films have tended to be melodramatic, fictionalised and one sided in their account of rise and fall of The Black Panther Party. In many ways, the Black Panthers continue to be a misunderstood, maligned and controversial black organisation/movement and in the light of contemporary political activism their brand of inspiring ideological Marxist militancy is actually somewhat refreshing and truthful. I am of the opinion that The Black Panther Party is potentially a very rich ideological area for film makers attempting to deal with black American discourse (past and present) as the organisation was littered with very memorable, highly articulate and impressionable socialist iconoclasts – Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale to name but a few. Nevertheless, a handful of films and documentaries do stand out as rewarding, didactic and seminal in their representation of the Panthers.

THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON – (1971, Howard Alk, US)

Murder of Fred Hampton

In Howard Alk’s 1971 slice of verite Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton comes across as a revolutionary political leader. Articulate, outspoken and defiant in his embrace of socialist ideology Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police in a pre-mediated raid sanctioned by J Edgar Hoover. Whilst the verite aesthetics suggests an observational and even impartial approach this is not the case as Alk’s documentary steadily transforms into a murder investigation. Alk thankfully refuses to repress or disguise his sympathy and affections for the black panthers which is transparent throughout and the counter culture challenge to traditional symbols of institutional power and authority are plainly evident in the documentary’s criticism of the police as the enemy. Whilst documentaries have arguably become more sophisticated now many of them seem to lack the raw political energy of an era in which nothing was sacred anymore. It is clear to see why the FBI and capitalist establishment felt threatened by Hampton as his emergence as a potential black leader was imminent given his popularity with the black community. Many of the interviews, speeches and observational camerawork set out to prove the Marxist ideology of the Panthers steadily shifted from radical militancy based on racial grounds to a brand of internationalism that positioned the capitalist system as the true enemy of a worldwide class struggle. Outrage is expressed as the police attempts to deflect blame and basically lie in front of the news media whilst the panthers attempts to plead for an independent investigation and inquiry leads to inertia. Alk’s documentary is an angry one with much of it directed against the establishment and its repression of the Panthers as a so called extension of cold war communist propaganda.

PANTHER – (1995, Melvin Van Peebles, US)

panther film

Many of those members who were part of the Black Panther party in the 60s and onwards rightfully distanced themselves from director Mario Van Peebles 1995 biopic on the Panthers. No one is questioning the motivation behind such a subject but Peebles takes extensive liberties with the truth and the end result is a film that embellishes, sensationalises and in a way ends up mis representing the Black Panther Party. The biggest criticism is the lack of objectivity – all of the Panthers and the party are simply depicted as untarnished angels of virtue and morality; ambiguity is absent. By effectively whitewashing the inner conflicts, problems with violence and political interests Peebles paints a picture that bears little resemblance to the real Panthers. Whilst it is true most historical films need a level of dramatisation, Panther is let down by the skills of an ordinary director who seems out of his depth when compared to some one like Spike Lee and the Malcolm X biopic. The noble political intentions of the Panthers are bathed in a disturbing romanticism that shows little critical distance from the director and those involved. Peebles based his screenplay on a novel written by his father – Melvin Van Peebles but for me the soundtrack was too obvious and much of the TV style in which the film has been shot means the material suffers from hyperbole. Interestingly Peebles says he struggled many years to get the project of the ground and it was the moderate success of New Jack City and Posse that finally convinced the studios. The lack of narrative coherence and poor characterisation makes it difficult to differentiate between what were some of the most intelligent, provocative and inspiring black figures of that era. Writer David Gritten for The Independent offers a sustained analysis of the film’s historical re-workings.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE! – (1996, Lee Lew-Lee, US)

Emory Douglas

The Black Panthers evolved continually throughout the 60s and beyond which meant their ten point program to enact revolutionary change amongst the dispossessed within American society was constantly under review. Ideologically and structurally the Panthers were a complex political party and whilst this documentary by Lee Lew-Lee may at first seem conventional in its approach it actually offers one of the most comprehensive and engaged accounts of the Black Panthers. Using interviews, archive footage and an investigative manner we are taken on a journey through the civil rights era supported with exhaustive research. It does become a study of the rise and fall of a political ideology with much of the commentary and evidence coming straight from Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver. What really interests Lee Lew-Lee is getting behind some of the major reasons why the party came to prominence in an era of non violence and more importantly what led to the loss of the Panther’s power base and international standing. Firstly, the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King certainly opened up a new space for the Black Panthers within their own community and the increasing collations they formed with other oppressed minority groups also widened their ideological appeal. Whilst Martin Luther King is represented as a symbol of non violent appeasement it is Malcolm X who is largely credited with developing the notion of intellectual violence. The Panthers saw themselves as natural successors who were carrying on the work of Malcolm X. Nevertheless, the documentary never loses sight of the fundamental truth that all of these different factions, leaders and ideologies were committed to ensuring the right to self determination was a universal value.

Given the fact the Panther Party started to create a united front that stretched around the world against the forces of American imperialism and capitalism it was inevitable the establishment would retaliate. A systematic campaign of covert operations run by the CIA and FBI to dismantle the Black Panther Party were mounted throughout the years in which we saw the party at its peak of political power. This led to high profile assassinations, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, detention and propaganda used to discredit the ideological legitimacy of the group and its leaders in the eyes of the black community. In the documentary we are told that infiltration was rife and informants were used to compile psychological profiles on Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. One member of the Black Panthers argues the FBI used psychological warfare on Huey Newton during his time in prison thus radically affecting and influencing decisions the made after his release. The documentary also draws telling parallels between the rise of the Black Panther Party and the emergence of the American Indian movement which was also dismantled by the FBI. All Power to the People! offers an accessible and entertaining historical overview of the Black Panther Party but it lacks the rawness and vitality of Alk’s 1971 documentary on Fred Hampton.

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