“Was he insane? F* yeah that boy was crazy, and he got a lot of people hurt!”
—Afro-Puerto Rican community activist
Felipe Luciano on Eldridge Cleaver
In this, the last quarter of the administration of the first African American president, combined with increasing instances of police brutality and other racially-tinged episodes of violence smearing our headlines, the legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense remains a relevant touchstone because of the things they tried to do, and the missteps they made trying to achieve those goals. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary slated for a Los Angeles release on Sept. 25, chronicles this in graphic detail.
In some circles, The Black Panther movement seemed like a lunatic fringe in much the same way that the Manson Family was (or, for that matter, the Ronald Reagan administration, with its retrospective disclosure of the First Lady consulting her personal astrologists, Jean Dixon and Joan Quigley, and an Ouija board). This, in turn, influenced the commander-in-chief.
The Panther’s foremost spokesperson, Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, was a serial rapist (and what would now be called a sex offender) who called President Reagan a “… punk, a sissy, and a coward,” challenged him to a dual, then experienced a life transformation during which he became a fashion designer, then a born-again Christian (and a Mormon, no less). He then endorsed the man he had previously insulted as he embraced the tenets of conservative Republicanism.
None-the-less, the formation of the Black Panther Party addressed legitimate grievances within the inner city. For younger, polarized African Americans fed up with the prodding gains forged by Martin Luther King’s followers of the mantra of nonviolence, the Panther imagery of leather jacketed, fist raised defiance made for a compelling alternative. At the top of the party hierarch, were a cast of characters as egotistical as they were charismatic, especially Elaine Brown, Cleaver, and poster icon Huey P. Newton.
The documentary makes it clear that deficiencies within the leadership were a primary factor behind the party’s collapse, not to mention prodding from the minions of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI/COINTELPRO efforts. This subversion might well be the situation’s only bona fide success, as Rutgers University historian Donna Murch attests.
At 116 minutes, director Stanley Nelson squeezes an incredible amount of information into his film, including documentation about the FBI’s ultimately successful campaign against these urban firebrands, the termination of compelling Illinois Panther leader Fred Hampton, and the inevitable disintegration of the organization.
The completed work leaves many of the principles dissatisfied. Brown and former Panther chief David Hilliard have both expressed disappointment with the film, while former chairman and co-founder Bobby Seale is curiously absent (apart from copious archival footage) from participation in the finished movie.
The documentary’s release is eerily timely, as all of the percepts that motivated the party’s inception remain unresolved, a half century after the events depicted in it. A retrospective examination of this recent history may, in turn, provide clues on how society may want to proceed in these perilous times.
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” opens Friday, Sept. 25 at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. For info, call (310) 473-8530.