While it existed (1966-1982), there was no more controversial political organization than the Black Panther Party. The word “controversial” is often misused, but in this case it applies. There is much positive and negative to say about the highly publicized black power organization, and prominent Americans have argued both sides at the top of their lungs.
We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of its inception (October 15) and I guess that’s why they’re so much in the air all of the sudden. That, and the fact that they are sadly relevant, with a series of tragic deaths of black citizens at the hands of police over the past few years, widely reported and disseminated through social media. The Panthers were initially organized to address just this problem. It billed itself as a “self-defense” organization.
They were criticized in their time for their violence and other criminal behavior, but their image has been rehabilitated over the decades by scholars and the hip hop community. Beyonce’s performance at this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show (for which she was roundly criticized) was a bellwether of the times. Those who are accustomed to dismissing the radicalism of the Panthers out of hand might wish to consider seeking a more three dimensional portrait than the one they likely carry around in their heads. In the past few months, the Mad Marchioness and I have seen three documentary projects about the Panthers (two films, one play) and I recommend them all.
The Black Power Mix Tape: 1967-1975 (2011)
There are ways in which you never really learn about your country until you hear what the foreign press has to say. I suppose this will make some people go berzerk, but so be it. To my mind, the only true American patriotism is always conditional. The fealty here ought to be to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, human rights for all, otherwise the United States is just a gang of hooligans like most other nations. By foreign press, I of course mean a trusted FREE foreign press. I don’t give a crap what the Russian and North Korean puppets are saying about us. But the European press (for example), we really ought to listen to that. Did I say unconditionally give it automatic credibility? No, I said LISTEN to it. The Right often seems to have the attitude that by merely listening to someone else’s point of view, you’re automatically a vassal in their thrall. A free press means you can get at the truth by hearing from many sources and then weighing them all to arrive at a portrait of reality in your own mind, if you have one. THUS (long preamble) this terrific documentary, made by Swedish television journalists was a true eye opener. American press coverage of the Black Panthers in the ’60s and ’70s was heavily bowdlerized, skewed away from the Panthers’ message and towards those of law enforcement authorities. The Swedish news teams captured interviews and other footage and an objective point of view you simply have not seen anywhere else. I don’t think its too much to say that watching this film will make you a different person.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016)
This is the PBS documentary that came out back in February, also unexpectedly terrific. Unlike the Swedish doc, which only covers up to 1975, this one catches the entire rise and fall of the group. Also this one is more narrowly focused on the Panthers, whereas Black Power Mixtape is more broadbased, covering other groups and individuals in the Civil Rights Movement, which provides handy context. Do I approve of bringing guns into the California state house? No! Am I a fan of Marxism? No! But I am definitely a fan of creating a world in which the police are not allowed to harass citizens with impunity, or at least one in which they think twice before they do so (since thinking twice may mean the difference between a live citizen and a dead one). Not just well worth a watch: it’s important that you do so. More here.
Black Panther Women
Written and directed by Jacquelyn Wade, this interesting theatre piece is now playing at the 13th Street Rep (we gave it a shout out in our article on the company, in this week’s Villager). Some of the most positive things the Black Panthers did were done by their female members, the school breakfast program being the most famous. At the same time, one of the more negative aspects was a culture of misogyny and violence to, and disrespect of, women. Wade’s well rounded and moving piece captures the irony of that, a progressive organization that was pro-black, but not terribly pro-feminist in any practical sense of the word. If you’re in New York, you should check it out. Info and tix are at www.13thstreetrep.org