Critics Corner: THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION

Read two critical perspectives on The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution by Ellen Sebastian Chang and A.M. Smiley.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution opens October 2, 2015 at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, Landmark Piedmont in Oakland, and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

PBSBlackPanthers_27x40THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION – What Will Be the Impact of This Film?

by Ellen Sebastian Chang

“We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

—Fred Hampton

The power of a young Fred Hampton is one of the clearest histories that working across color lines to achieve equity will end with a shot in the head. Today the ultra-militarized police force is the clearest directive of this legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Continue reading →

TheBlackPanthers_OfficialPoster_WebTHE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION – The Wall, the Sword, and the Snake

by A. M. Smiley

Questions. After viewing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, questions were firing at the top of my mind. And yes, “Why was the government so hell-bent on taking down the Panthers?” and “Why have the Panthers not returned in the midst of all that is happening now?” did come up. But really my questions were about why things I was seeing from the ’60s and ’70s – the conversations, the rage, the anxiety, the fear – were still happening. How did we lose solidarity with other communities, what … happened? How did we allow an entire generation of folks to grow up with an erasure of Black Panther knowledge, discipline, and history?

Continue reading →

THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION – What Will Be the Impact of This Film?

by Ellen Sebastian Chang

“We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

—Fred Hampton

The power of a young Fred Hampton is one of the clearest histories that working across color lines to achieve equity will end with a shot in the head. Today the ultra-militarized police force is the clearest directive of this legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

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The bedroom where Fred Hampton was murdered. December 1969. Credit: Chicago Reader/Paul Sequeira.

The quiet tone of the opening animation to The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, narrated by former Panther Erika Huggins, tells the story of blind men who touch an elephant to try to describe it: one feels its side and says, “It feels like a wall”; the other its tusk, “It feels like a spear.” And the other its trunk, “It feels like a snake.” She gently continues to speak, “…that is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party. We know the party we were in and not the entire thing. We were making history and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.” The soundtrack explodes with The Chi-Lites’ “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”: “There’s no price for happiness, there’s no price for love / Up goes the price of livin’ an’ you’re right back where you was.” The opening montage of images of the police violence, civil rights actions and worldwide revolutions of the times make me feel “right back where you was.” And I ask, What will be the impact of this film?

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed, produced and written by Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple and The Murder of Emmett Till) is a historical love letter, a dance track/style tracker, the power, energy and impulsive voice of youth and the elephant revealed: The “elephant” being the blind misunderstanding of the historical scope of racism and class in America, and the blinding force of the status quo to maintain control by any means necessary.

Nelson has created and managed the enormous task to mine archival resources with personal testimony of former Panther members, Oakland and Los Angeles police officers, an FBI informant, lawyers and political leaders to frame the history not only of the formation of the Black Party itself, but also how the Party eroded along with the erosion of black life that leads us to this current moment in time. It will be easy for many viewers to get lost in the images of the guns along with the language of violence, thus missing the original impulse of self-defense and the love of the black humanity. That the Party was asking for the same human rights our nation proclaimed – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of voice.

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Credit: Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch/theblackpanthers.com.

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch/theblackpanthers.com.

The Party was also focused on survival programs of free clinics and free breakfast as well as education. And that the likes of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI understood this form of black organizing was a direct threat to the status quo.

What will the impact of this film be? What has been the impact of the viral images of Freddie Gray? Eric Garner? Fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton? What has been the impact? This film makes the likes of me feel crazy: the crazy one might feel when you keep asking for the same things over and over, the opportunity for equal access to live the life of a full human being.

A video of a police officer forcing a teenager to the ground and also drawing his weapon has brought criticism about police response to a pool party in McKinney, Texas.

Screen grab from video of the June 2015 violent arrest of Dajerria Becton by McKinney, Texas Corporal Eric Casebolt.

We see the impact of redlining, crack, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We see the impact of unaffordable housing, high unemployment among blacks, lack of health care. We see in this film the impact of chronic systematic violent abuse, which leads to a young leadership that breaks down mentally and personally due to loneliness, fear and imprisonment. The film ends with the recognition of the underestimation of the brutal power of the police, the government and the lack of resources to carry on. And the final voices repeating what we want: education food housing … we want what all humans want.

The haunting voice of Gil Scott Heron cries out, reminding us:

Just like the cities staggered on the coastline
Living in a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the forest buried beneath the highway
Never had a chance to grow
It’s winter

Horizontal RuleESCDirector, creative consultant and FuseBOX owner Ellen Sebastian Chang began her career as a lighting designer and technician. Her directorial work is highly influenced by a love of light and shadow. Sebastian Chang was the cofounder and artistic director of LIFE ON THE WATER, an internationally-known presenting and producing organization at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center from 1986 through 1995. She recently acted as consulting producer for the 2013 HBO production Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. She has directed and collaborated with hip-hop artists (Aya de Leon’s Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop ; Dan Wolf, Keith Pinto, Tommy Shepard and One Ring Zero’s Stateless: A Hip-Hop Vaudeville); and staged large scale music drama (Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s Kali Yuga; Kitka’s The Rusalka Cycle; Philip Glass/Oakland Opera Theater’s Ahknahten) and dance (Amara Tabor Smith/Deep Waters Dance Theater’s Our Daily Bread; Monique Jenkinson aka Fauxnique’s Luxury Items) as well as ensemble theater productions (Lynne Nottage’s Fabulation or The Re-education of Undine ; Elsa Davis’ Bulrusher). She can be reached at elschang@sbcglobal.net.Horizontal RuleTHE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION – The Wall, the Sword, and the Snake

by A. M. Smiley

Questions. After viewing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, questions were firing at the top of my mind. And yes, “Why was the government so hell-bent on taking down the Panthers?” and “Why have the Panthers not returned in the midst of all that is happening now?” did come up. But really my questions were about why things I was seeing from the ’60s and ’70s – the conversations, the rage, the anxiety, the fear – were still happening. How did we lose solidarity with other communities, what … happened? How did we allow an entire generation of folks to grow up with an erasure of Black Panther knowledge, discipline, and history?

BP5The film opens with the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, told by Black Panther Party member Ericka Huggins. The parable has many variations and is used across cultures, but I feel, and it seems director Stanley Nelson does as well, that it applies not only to the Panthers as a whole, but to the viewpoints in this film. In the parable a number of Blind Men (anywhere from three to six) happen upon an Elephant. The men attempt to describe what it is they have encountered. The first man, touching the side of the elephant, says they have reached a wall. The second man, while touching the tusk, disagrees and says that they are touching a sword. The last man, while touching the trunk, disagrees and says they have encountered a snake. The wall, the sword, and the snake represent the totality of what we, Black people, Bay Area folks, America, and in particular White America know about the Black Panthers. For each of us these walls, swords, and snakes will come in many forms. In the end, it is all unfortunately, beautifully, true.

BP6BP7There is so much to process. Of course the film shows the “good times,” from the Panthers patrolling the police, ensuring that there is no brutality during arrests, to their participation in Open Carry. Free food programs, free clinics, and sickle-cell anemia research all showcased an organization that wanted nothing more than the education, empowerment, and upliftment of their community. And then there’s the first wall. The idea that nothing good can come from Black people coming together with knowledge and self-produced resources. Yes, there were more outspoken Party members, the Malcolm Xs to the Dr. Kings, and then another question … is that so bad? The game often played is good cop, bad cop. The good cop that can pacify you, neutralize the anger and centralize focus, instill a bit of hope, promise freedom … and then the bad cop – loud, obscene, sometimes violent and yet effective.

BobbySealeCourtroomThe film, to me, holds no bars when it comes to displaying just how insidious the federal and local attacks on the Black Panthers were. Their destruction was a political platform. It was campaign fodder and good publicity. “Look! Here are young, educated, disciplined Black people once again demanding the access to rights they were already promised. They are a threat. And I promise….” Question. Sword. What is a group of young people to do when they are consistently threatened with violence and guns but get a means to protect themselves? An all-out war was being waged against the Panthers, and while the cops were being hailed as heroes for using tear gas and gunfire, the Panthers were being described and treated like terrorists. On a local level, you have the infamous trial of Bobby Seale after a riot broke out following a speech he’d just given. He was nowhere near the site – who knows what started the riot? It was not the charges that were the issue so much as the treatment of Seale during the trial. In the movie, it is relayed that when Seale asked that the trial be postponed so that his attorney could come from the West Coast, the judge denied him that request and so Seale, in his full right as an American citizen, requested to represent himself and was once again denied. Courtroom sketches and audio depict a brazen Bobby Seale in full protest of his treatment, and the judge’s reaction? Ultimately, the judge asked the sheriffs in the courtroom to bind Seale to a chair and tape his mouth shut with gaffer tape. This and many other court cases, along with the cases of Eldridge Cleaver and the Panther 21, shift the focus of the Party and the film to the Defense Fund, a fund created to assist Panthers in their court proceedings … but the Panthers were being arrested at every turn, because at this same time, they in fact are stocking up on bombs, dynamite, guns, and ammo in an attempt to fight off the consistent attacks upon their centers and apartments.

BP8

BP9So how does it end? With the snake, of course. You must ask yourself, how afraid of Black advancement was the U.S. Government to create an entire counter intelligence program for a local organization? Yes, by this time the Panthers were, in fact, a national/international organization, still preaching those same ten points, creating peaceful connections with other minority groups representing the unheard (Appalachian hillbillies, North Koreans, Chicanos). But what warranted a federal program to infiltrate and destruct something that was unifying so many people? COINTELPRO, the snake to end all snakes, was created to ensure that there was not the arising of a Black Messiah … question that for a moment. The program was put in place to not only put pressure on the Panthers from the outside and make them expel resources at rapid speeds, but from the inside as well. Sewing seeds of mistrust and paranoia, COINTELPRO was the psychological domino effect needed to, at the very least, rip the Party in half and watch damage fall as it may. In the Bible, all it took to upend all of humanity was the power of suggestion, and COINTELPRO still, to this day, continues to be victorious in that area.

BP10And yes, another question emerges about the stability of and decisions made by Huey P. Newton … with that, we can only speculate and voice with a cautious tongue our thoughts … mental illness? Drug abuse? I refuse to say, our heroes are humans filled with flaws, but they are our heroes.

And then, like that, the film ends, with another, yet somehow more somber, reciting of the Ten-Point Program and some information about “where they are now.” And once again, the Party is essentially over. And while the questions were abundant, the conflicting feelings of justifying antics and questioning decisions, the music, the laughter, the power, the changes, the love, the divide, the legacy of the Black Panther Party all shine with a brightness just for the Black soul still needing a cup of hope to drink from. The seeds that the Panthers sowed are now being reaped in the Black Lives Matter movement and their use of social media to check police on abuse of power (and reaction to their movement has been similar to the way the Black Panthers were critiqued). They’re being reaped in other movements calling attention to police brutality, mass incarceration, and the rampant racism still affecting this country. Above all, this is a film to spark the flame in anyone, young or old, that forgot what to fight for, who to fight, and why we must, always, fight, for all power, to the people. When the truth of the matter is equal to the interpretations of Blind Men, what more can you ask for than the thoroughly detailed hint that this film gives you?Horizontal RuleAMSAshley Smiley is a recent graduate of San Francisco State University where she received her Master of Arts in Drama after receiving her Bachelor of Arts in Performing Arts and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. She is currently a member of Campo Santo and the new Youth Speaks Events Coordinator for Bay Area Programs. Currently she is assisting with volunteer recruitment and organization for the Life is Living Festival in Oakland, which is a festival that celebrates Black life and environmental sustainability along with a Black Panther-inspired Free Breakfast Program at Lil Bobby Hutton Park (aka DeFremery Park).

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