Review: 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' on PBS

You may recall that little show Beyoncé put on in her portion of the Super Bowl halftime show the other day, in which she was choreographically supported by a corps of black women dressed and coiffed in a way meant to suggest the informal uniform of the Black Panther Party.

Along with the video for “Formation” that preceded it into the cultural mainstream, it was a political fashion statement, and an unfashionable political statement, presented on an unlikely occasion without context, but oddly powerful nevertheless. “Saturday Night Live” responded with a joke trailer for a disaster movie in which white America panics, faced with the sudden discovery that “Beyoncé is Black.”

Some context for that moment, and for that panic, may be provided by the history lesson that is Stanley Nelson's documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” coming Tuesday to PBS's “Independent Lens” series.

That it's Black History Month is not coincidental to the timing, surely, but Nelson, whose other films include “Freedom Riders,” “Jonestown: The Life & Death of People's Temple” and “The Murder of Emmitt Till,” has a long and ongoing relationship with public broadcasting. (The film was released briefly and narrowly in theaters last year, for awards consideration, and reviewed at the time by the Times' Kenneth Turan, but television is where such works really live.)

Nelson employs a wealth of archival film and photographs – the Panthers, founded 50 years ago in Oakland, were nothing if not photogenic – and interviews with party members, law enforcement agents, historians and journalists in a film that somehow manages to be even-handed, critical and celebratory; viewers looking for a definitive picture, or an opinion one way or another, may be disappointed. (Nelson makes that clear.)

The Panthers began not as a national movement they would quickly become – too quickly, by the reckoning of some here – but to deal with local concerns and issues; their interlocking concerns were self-protection and community outreach, symbolized by guns on the one hand (openly carried, which was legal at the time) and by free breakfasts and healthcare on the other. Eventually, the party itself would split along these lines.

It doesn't completely place the Panthers in the context of the times, and of antiwar, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-establishment militancy that flourished in the Bay Area, Free Speech Movement and various other countercultural movements in the Bay Area. It was an time when some hoped and others feared that revolution – a word as inflammatory as it was inexact – was coming to America. Both sides were readying for actual war.

“The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm; the great weakness of the party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm,” says party member William Calhoun. “That sometimes can be very dangerous especially when you're up against the United States government.”

That opposition was concentrated in FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who feared “the rise of a 'messiah'” among the Panthers and set the FBI to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit” and “otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists,” through the secret counterintelligence program COINTELPRO. There was harassment; there were bloody raids on houses and offices. It's impossible to say where the party would have gone without that pressure, which amplified and exacerbated the factionalism within the party, which suffered also from dueling cults of personality among its increasingly polarized, and in some cases unreliable, leaders.

The party was history by the early 1980s. But what remains for many is a memory not of dissension and dysfunction but of pride – that's what Beyoncé put on show at the Super Bowl.

As one woman remembers here, “We had swagger.”

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