So how did I get to this documentary, well to tell you the truth... a lackluster documentary brought me to it. What was the documentary? Well it was Crips and the Bloods: Made in America (Stacy Peralta, 2008). As for this film, don't get me wrong, the post production value was incredibly high. It's attention to details in the inclusion of sound effects, foleys, to add realism, a vibrant soundtrack, and a plethora of supporting footage was all exquisitely done. Even on the still photos the camera seems to quickly guide the viewer in movments matching the emotion of the scene. It does not hesitate to interview a wide mix of people. The narration provided by Forrest Whitaker is strong and moving. Sounds like it should be great, right?
Where this documentary fell apart was in the construction of its story. In trying to place the Crips and Bloods within a historical context, combined with its search for a myriad of causes and its cacophony of voices with the exclusion of all that are not within the group; Crips and Bloods manged to tell a lot... without telling anything. Some captivating interviews, but perhaps like Trudell (Heather Rae, 2005) the director and all on this project became too involved in their story. If you want to take a look at the preview for this doc check out the link at the very bottom.
Well how did that documentary get me to The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution? The Panther movement is brought up in Crips and the Bloods. The director of The Black Panthers, is New York native Stanley Nelson. He has won Emmy's, a Peabody award, and a Special Jury prize from Sundance Film
Festival. His works, such as Freedom Summer (Nelson, 2014), The Murder of Emmett Till (2003), or Marcus Garvey: Look for me in the whirlwind (2000), tend to focus on the African-American experience. Films like Jamestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006), and Puerto RIco: A Right to Choose (1993) shows a vibrancy of subject matter. Beyond observing his filmography, in viewing his work, one easily finds his adroit skill in directing and storytelling.
From its outset in 1966, Nelson displays how the very birth of the Black Panther movement was entrenched in revolution. During this age more than fifty countries had gained freedom worldwide. In America social strife was rampant. In the tiny town of Oakland Huey Newton and Bobby Seal decided to
take on what they felt was the entrenched racism of the police and, in full compliance with the law, took up arms to observe the police when they engaged members of the black community.
1967 was a crucial year. This is when the death of a white cop, John Fry, motivates the arrest of Huey
Newton. This allows Eldgridge to fill the leadership vaccancy of a panther movement that was growing by leaps and bounds. As Eldridge tries to guide radical political action, Newton fights for an expansion of the Black Panthers into socially beneficial services. This was seen in the rise of a free breakfast program that served about 20,000 kids a week in 17 communities. The media and the Panthers are displayed during this time as using the other to get the word out and get viewers. This attracts the notice of many white students and the documentary displays the multi-racial inclusion what would become known as the "Free Huey" Movement. Indeed leaders like Fred Hampton implore ALL to join together despite their backgrounds.
This is when the serpent was let into this new birth that was making progress: and J. Edgar Hoover was his name. Nelson details how the F.B.I. acting under Hoover's orders began a plan called Cointelpro (counter-intelligence program). It was a plan designed to weaken the unity of the Black Panthers and prevent the rise of a "messiah".
1968 and 1969 were tough year for the Black Panthers. Despite the national assassinations of leaders
like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy, the Black Panthers were not spared sorrow. The rising leadership of Hampton was cut down by a local police action against he and Eldridge. Eldridge was able to escape to Algeria where he began to forge radical alliances with the PLO, North Vietnam, and North Korea making the Black Panthers an international Organization, albiet one that forged alliances with odd bedfellows. Black Panther members now find themselves the
focus of concentrated raids by police officers and Panther resistance. Though persecuted, they and their multi-racial allies stare such persecution in the face. Fighting back through the creation of a vibrant culture. The group also gets out the word with the publication of a newspaper.
By 1970 Huey Newton gets his freedom. This is when everything begins to fall apart. Newton wants to return to the inclusion and expansion of the Panther Community Service programs. Eldgridge and his followers press for more radical political action which eventually leads to a split. Though by 1972 Bobby Seal was able to mobilize a huge political crowd in his run for mayor of Oakland, the Panthers have lost their focus.
Now then you might observe that this could have the potential of going in the direction of Crips and Bloods and becoming a simple single narrative. If that is what you thought you would be wrong. As an accomplished director Nelson takes an incredible assembly of interviews and archival footage from all sources and sides. Newscast footage walks hand in hand with films taken by the Black Panthers. Moments on Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. would appear alongside moments taken of a party at Jane Fonda's or a speech given by Eldridge Cleaver. Unafraid Nelson did all he could to pursue the truth. Not only that but he used as many voices to tell as many sides of the story as he could. The good , the bad, and all points in between were all examined by Nelson. This includes dissension within the party, division within the nation, and even the unpleasant ending to many of the founders of the Black Panthers. The soundtrack of The Black Panthers is just as vibrant. While Nelson's movements across the still photographs that tell some of the story might be slower, it is also carrying a different rhythm than that of the Crips and Bloods. Black Panthers is an intriguing documentary that is sure to entertain if one is interested in a documentary of a social movement.