I grew up with a simplistic, moralizing official history of the Civil Rights movement, one full of platitudes and false dichotomies: a sanitized version of Martin Luther King, Jr. stood as the model of a “good” Civil Rights leader; Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other radicals were vilified as “bad” Civil Rights leaders—or Anti-American terrorists. We read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” but nothing from Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, or Stokely Carmichael. This is how most histories go, official narratives being what they are. There are heroes and villains, and little in-between. However, there is much more ambiguity surrounding events than most of us choose to accept. I came to see things much differently regarding the Black Panther Party, though not in a way that makes me feel like trading insults with strangers on the internet. I reserve the right to make up my own mind. You must also make up yours.
But one must be informed. Which is why projects like The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution—whose Kickstarter campaign video you can see above—are so important. It weighs heavily to be writing this now, as tragedies all too familiar to the figures in the film still play out tonight and nearly every night across the U.S. We owe it to ourselves to know the histories of the current struggle, both official and unofficial. I overheard someone say recently that getting a genuine education requires taking “two sets of notes.” For those raised with a one-dimensional textbook history of the Civil Rights movement, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is like another set of notes, along with other films like Goran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975, Lee Lew-Lee’s All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond, and Mario and Melvin Van Peebles’ fictionalized history Panther.
These films provide interesting and excellent introductions to the subject, but Stanley Nelson’s documentary offers, as he puts it, “the first comprehensive look at the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party.” Nelson is an award-winning veteran documentarian whose films include Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, and The Murder of Emmett Till. He began The Black Panthers seven years ago, and its current release, audiences have told him, “could not have come at a better time.” The film has already premiered for “a select audience” at Sundance, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and L.A.’s Pan African Film Festival. With eight days to go, the Kickstarter to fund the doc’s multi-city theatrical release has almost reached its goal of $50,000. See their page to help them get all the way there.
Then consider reading, and re-reading, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”