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Black Panthers - Vanguard of the revolution - East End Film Festival

Friday 10 July 2015, by Coco Green

During her 1972 presidential campaign, politician Shirley Chisholm was questioned about her willingness to work with the Black Panther Party. Chisholm responded that rather than focusing on the Panthers themselves, the nation should consider the conditions that created them. In his eighth film to premiere at Sundance, writer and director Stanley Nelson Jr makes a similar point, but unfortunately doesn’t delve deeply into these conditions. Audiences already engaged with discourses on race and those who have taken Ethnic Studies or Black Studies courses won’t find a wealth new insights, information or analysis. In fact, you might be annoyed at the lack of detail of key parts of their strategy- for example the methods they used to politicise children in their free breakfast programme (I certainly want to know if they used songs or phonetic devices to help them to memorise the Party Platform). But for most people who’ve not had the pleasure of learning about the Panthers, this is an example of an engaging documentary simply because the personalities shine and, with a well paced story, you can feel the tension, fear and hope in the safety of the theatre. You’re not watching in a Black church, after all.

And even self-proclaimed revolutionaries may enjoy Nelson’s media analysis of the Panther strategy and learn something more about the history of the party (even given the omission of Angela Davis and other women leaders as individual focal points in their own right). Nelson makes considered points about they way black liberation struggles were packaged and understood by key audiences, particularly young black people in the ghettos, working class women and men, respectable Negroes, white community organisers and white middle America. Using a media studies lens the film differentiates the Panther personalities, who they spoke to and why, and how their mottos and ideas resonated with these different groups. We can also better understand how some messages were more threatening to the status quo (i.e., anti-poverty aims in multi-racial coalitions that didn’t mention the big C) and how Black men with guns could be read as terrifying or as undoubtedly bad ass cool.

At the screening I attended in a borough of London which (for now) still has a large Black African community, the audience was almost exclusively white, raising questions not only about Nelson’s intended audience but also the very impetus for the film. It’s not clear what response he intends to provoke – there’s neither a call to action nor exculpatory evidence presented in order to force a new trial for those Panthers still incarcerated. Perhaps this is a film for the Sundance crowd. Still, I enjoyed viewing a film about the Black Panther Party so close to the 4th of July. God, I’m such a patriot.

Dir., Stanley Nelson Jr, 2015

Coco Green saw Black Panthers: Vanguard of the revolution as part of our coverage of the East End Film Festival 2015

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