Beyonce’s Superbowl 50 homage to the Black Panthers has sparked a lot of commentary and argument, but not all of those weighing in on the debate know the full story of the controversial movement. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s new documentary which airs on PBS on February 16 offers ammunition for both sides. It provides a full, unvarnished and gripping look into the rise and fall of a political and cultural force which empowered many and frightened even more Americans when it, like the Superbowl, first appeared 50 years ago.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in Oakland, California by activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. A political and cultural movement, it had many goals and many layers, each of which Nelson touches on as he tells the story of the group and the people who who brought it to life. Through interviews with both those who left the party and those who still honor its memory, Nelson shows how the Black Panthers were both a unifying and a divisive force within the Black community.
Many of the same tensions between the police and the Black community that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement today spurred the Panthers to form half a century ago. Nelson’s documentary points out the good work the Panthers did in their neighborhoods and how it empowered and encouraged a generation eager for change. His film also shows the more martial and extreme side of the party, and why the FBI and police feared it was a force for violence.
The Black Panthers, as Nelson’s film shows, included radical revolutionaries impatient for change as well as activists who sought to use the party to educate, mobilize and engage Black Americans as an evolutionary force that would alter the cultural and political landscape. More Black Panthers carried books than guns, but as Nelson and the legion of journalists, FBI officers, police informants, politicians, educators and former Black Panthers he interviews explain, the movement was often divided between those who wanted to fight for change and those who just wanted to fight back against oppression. Those and other conflicts within the movement, including the struggle by female members for equality, are brought out in Nelson’s documentary, which follows both the rise and the fall of a party that sought to be the vanguard of a revolution in the treatment and status of America’s largest minority.
Not every viewer, Black or White, will react the same to Nelson’s film, but it will give those who were energized or angered by Superbowl 50’s half-time show a lot more to talk about than just the berets, leather and crossed ammo belts of Beyonce and her dancers.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution premieres on Independent Lens, Tuesday, February 16 at 9 pm Eastern on most PBS stations.