Those lovable Black Panthers

Reviewing Stanley Nelson‘s new documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution back in January, John DeFore of the Hollywood Reporter gave a big thumbs-up to its admiring portrayal of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and company. If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers, you’d come away from DeFore’s review — or, one gathers, from Nelson’s film (which was aired earlier this year on PBS) — believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism. Yes, DeFore acknowledges the film’s lack of objectivity, but is quick to add that “[s]traight history is not the whole point here.”

DeFore isn’t alone; audiences at Sundance and other film festivals have cheered Nelson’s film lustily. It took Michael Moynihan, writing in The Daily Beast on July 25, to remind — or inform — readers that the Black Panthers were, in fact, bloodthirsty totalitarian-minded thugs who committed “revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, [and] ‘disappearances.’” Nelson’s film, Moynihan complained, is pure hagiography, omitting “almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers.” By emphasizing the Panthers’ style — the way they dressed and moved and talked — and soft-pedaling their ideology, Nelson managed to dance around the fact that the Panthers were, in Moynihan’s words, “ideological fanatics” who were guided, as the Panthers’ own newspaper put it, by “the revolutionary works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Comrades Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and other great leaders of the worldwide people’s struggle for liberation.”

To peruse old issues of that newspaper, notes Moynihan, is to encounter passages about “racist imperialist faggot honkey[s],” innumerable pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Mao Tse-Tung, “paeans to demented Albanian Stalinist Enver Hoxha,” and, time and time again, “glowing references to Josef Stalin” by such Panther eminences as Eldridge Cleaver, David Hilliard, and Bobby Seale. But Nelson drops all this troublesome baggage down the memory hole. While he tells the Panthers’ story mostly through the personal accounts by former members, moreover, he consistently whitewashes those accounts. For example, ex-Panther Jamal Joseph, now a faculty member at Columbia University, was (notes Moynihan) “sentenced to 12½ years in prison for his part in the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery, which resulted in the death of three innocents.” Joseph is one of the main talking heads in Nelson’s film; but his “very long rap sheet…is never mentioned.”

Moynihan’s conclusion? Nelson’s film has its share of cinematic pizzazz, but he’s “an astonishingly bad journalist.” Why?

Because a good journalist would have forced [interviewees] Joseph, [Ericka] Huggins, [Flores] Forbes, and [Landon] Williams to confront their own pasts and the Panther’s violent legacy, while steering them away from rote banalities accusing the FBI of provoking their murderousness. A good journalist would have brought in voices critical of the party from other expanses of the civil rights movement (like the late Bayard Rustin). A good journalist might look at the actuarial table for Panther members and wonder why more Panthers were killed by fellow black nationalists than by the pigs.

But of course, it looks as though journalism was the last thing Nelson had in mind here. What he was going for was celebration — a celebration of brutal, tyrant-worshiping hoodlums. And one crowd of film buffs after another has joined in his applause.