Panther a Documentary by Stanley Nelson: A Film Review
By Ayodele Nzinga
I watched Alex Haley’s Roots on my Granny’s TV. I watched alone. My Granny could not stand to watch. She was visibly upset in a way I now understand signaled the film had evoked strong memories. She was not watching Alex Haley’s story, she was remembering her own, recounted first hand from her parents and grandparents. For me, it was a way to view history as alive, to hear it coming from black mouths, to hear the story aloud. I connected to the group story, my subconscious began to chew on the enormity of the epistemological tragedy wrought by the holocaust of transatlantic transgression. For my grandmother it was like falling through a door nailed shut and covered by a wall of years and the illusion of progress. She could not watch the fictional recreation of the enslavement and breaking of Africans and the rude process of learning to become American. No doubt the film conveying a time come and gone reminded her of how far we had not gone. I found myself feeling the same way as I watched Nelson’s Panther.
I arrived at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley at the agreed upon time but still managed to miss connecting with Marvin X the West Coast Black Arts impresario and my mentor. We were to watch Panther together but when I arrived, X and his entourage were already seated in one of the theaters to view a sold out four o’clock showing of the film that promised a Q&A with X and others from the film. I bought a ticket for the 5:00 show and hung out in the lounge with a couple of pomegranate margaritas and some sweet potato fries as I waited to watch a film I was not sure I wanted to see.
I saw the film alone in a half empty theater with a crowd that was mixed like Berkeley can be. Some older white folk you could imagine being nostalgic about a history they remembered, some older black folk with youth in tow, wanting the youth to see what they the elders had lived, and some youth of varying hues mixed and matched curious about a time no so long ago but in many ways obscured and glossed over to make it seem very far away somewhere in the land of improbable myth. Our myths are important as are the recounts of all the times when humanity stepped off the page and left a mark big enough for us to remember. I made it half way through without talking to the screen. I cried through most of it. I left the theater full of a deep pain and a deeper understanding of how far we have not come.
My brother Nehemiah Franks was a member of the Black Panther Party. I, like my mentor Marvin X, who was questioned by a party member recently about his affiliation, was an associate. Watching the film for me was not like a history lesson it was like remembering. I had some trepidation about remembering. Reality is more complex than myth. How would Nelson capture the truth of The Black Panther Party in a way that both respected and illuminated the beauty and pain of one of the most significant moments in US history? What would he have us know? After seeing the film I wished I had made one of the screenings I was invited to where he was part of the Q&A. I would have asked him what he had come to know about the complexity of truth and the places where myth and truth part ways to preserve the power of myth.
The film is composed of first person accounts and documentary footage with a minimum of overwriting. You are presented with facts as the speakers recall them. One knows that somethings remain on the cutting room floor, and in Nelson’s mind, considered unnecessary to tell the larger than life story of The Black Panther Party. All art is invested with the artist’s point of view it is inevitable. Nelson’s documentary left me with my memory of warriors and told me enough of the unpleasant truth that attends reality to feel that he was invested in telling the story that mattered most.
The film rest on the surface, giving a balance to stories reported over the news at the time, it introduces you to the characters in the drama and clearly defined the conditions which supported the formation and the reasoning for a citizen’s self-defense organization. It traced relationships and gave thumbnails of the major players. While giving us the framework for the myth we are shown ordinary men and women who made a choice to resist blatant racism and its effect and what it cost them to stand up. One sees the surface of relationships and the overarching story of struggle manifest in actions that help to shape our current moment. The film establishes and rest on some important historical facts, like the beginning of free breakfast programs in schools, the idea of community health clinics, the idea of knowing the law and being able to make use of it to defend yourself from its abuse, the idea of policing the police and insisting on the minimums it takes to make life as articulated in the ten point plan. Along with the idea of publishing internationally and driving your own narrative of struggle as an option alongside the mainstream accounts of aggressive negroes living beyond the pale sequestered in the urban ghettos.
The Black Panthers were more than an organization they were a part of a movement that marks a moment in time. Its formation, its achievements, its decline, and the incredible role the United States Government played in that decline along with its (the government) motivations and intentions is one of the most important moments in American history for North American Africans. Seeing Nelson’s work may not offer a definitive view of the scope of the national struggle for equity carried in The Black Power Movement but it gives you a view of one of the cornerstones of that movement as in played out on the West Coast and it gives you a glimpse of Oakland as a chocolate city pressed down but fighting back.
The film highlights Bobby Seales run for Mayor in Oakland but does not engage the string of Mayors before and after who failed to steward Oakland to prosperity and enabled development to eat large parts of communities that were created by redlining without providing jobs or better quality of life for the residents confined to those areas. It also does not venture far into the infighting and what taking over the underground in Oakland looked like. Nor does it give you a view of what that decision felt like in community or what it did to those who dreamed on The Panther’s as a tool of revolution and a means to achieving freedom. Nelson’s film stays in its lane barely tilting at the lawless way in which the law maintained the racial divide, while giving you a sense of the ruthless way in which it pursued, feared, and ultimately authored the plan that spelled the end of an enterprise begun out of necessity, conceived in courage, with the highest intentions.
The film gives you space to consider the power and potential of organized youth with a clearly defined agenda to clearly understand and firmly seize the moment. The Panther Party gave youth like my brother a structure under which to embody resistance. The party gave them a voice, a presence in a world where outside of being the targets of oppression, they were virtually invisible. It is not difficult to see that there has been no grassroots organized struggle to hold black youth and their unique and peculiar struggle to be seen as human since that moment to the Black Life Matters platform of the current moment.
It is of interest that the Black Life Matters platform is currently being harassed by the FBI and described as terrorist as were The Panthers. Nelson’s film gives you a broader view and allows lots of room for you to connect dots and understand history in a grounded and contextual fashion. If you are interested in understanding the racial divide in America and the beginning of a series of laws authored to oppress people of color and enabling the creation of privatized prisons this film should be on your viewing list. If you are a teacher or student of American history you should view this film. If you are a student of African American history you must see this film. If you are interested in the state of urban America see this film. If you are invested in change see this film. It should inspire you to want to know more.