In his film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, black documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson slices and dices the history of the Black Panther Party into a two-dimensional palliative for white people and Negroes who are comfortable in America’s oppressive status quo. His film, a collage of personalized vignettes by erstwhile and self-professed Party members, culminating in the complete excoriation of the Party’s guiding genius, Huey P. Newton, is at once shocking and disappointing. It is also condemnable.
As an aside, to answer any charge that my condemnation of this film arises from the fact that Nelson tossed most of his interview with me onto the cutting room floor, I note that my autobiography, A Taste of Power, my own Black Panther story, has never gone out of print and was just picked up as an e-book. It is under option with HBO for its miniseries The Black Panthers.
That said, as a former leader of the Party, I assert authority to state that Stanley Nelson ultimately debases the Party, which history will substantiate was, to this very day, the greatest effort for freedom ever made by Africans lost in America. Nelson does this by excising from his film the Party’s ideological foundation and political strategies, despite the wealth of published materials articulating the Party’s goals and ideals, reducing our activities to sensationalist engagements, as snatched from establishment media headlines.
He lingers on minutiae in showing stock footage from our famous Free Breakfast for Children program and Free Health Clinic program, the most publicized among the over 30 Survival Programs the Party fostered. In that, he obscures the magnitude of this effort, for which the FBI admittedly and specifically condemned the Party as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” And Nelson does this despite the fact that there are hours of footage online in which Huey P. Newton fully sets forth the purpose of our Survival Programs, operating under the slogan “Survival Pending Revolution,” which was to serve the People’s immediate needs toward galvanizing mass participation in the Revolution. The Party held that the masses of People not the Party were the makers of the Revolution of which, in our time and place, we were indeed the vanguard.
Minimizing the role of Huey Newton, founder of the Party, along with Bobby Seale, Nelson elevates the role in the Party of Eldridge Cleaver—who individually did more to try to destroy the Party than the U.S. government. This elevation of Cleaver is a clue to the point of Nelson’s “documentary”—to produce a piece of provocative propaganda worthy of the FBI itself. Though Cleaver was but a fleeting darling of the establishment press who was in the Party for no more than a year or so before being expelled, footage of Cleaver and “Cleaverites” overwhelms almost half of Nelson’s two-hour film.
While referencing the COINTELPRO operations of the FBI, which has been well-documented to have had the goal of discrediting, disrupting or destroying the Black Panther Party, Nelson reduces the massive, brutal effort by the U.S. government to destroy the Party to the story of traitor William O’Neal, who infiltrated the Illinois Chapter of the Party as an agent of the FBI. And, while showing emotional interviews with survivors of the ferocious, 1969 raid on the Party’s Los Angeles office by the Los Angeles Police Department’s newly-formed SWAT Team, Nelson erases the fact that this assault, like the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, was in fact orchestrated by the government of the United States—and this, despite that no other organization in the history of the United States has been so targeted by the government for elimination. Had he chosen to do the right thing, Nelson would have had to open up his film to the broad question of why the Party was so targeted by the United States government.
Though he focuses most of his film on the personal remembrances of Party members and purported Party members, Nelson deletes the memory and martyrdom of Party heroes like George Jackson, Bunchy Carter, and John Huggins.
In the last 20 minutes of his film, Nelson sets forth a superficial montage of the Bobby Seale/Elaine Brown electoral campaign. Accompanied by jaunty music, this campaign is suggestively presented as a deviation from any notion of revolution, providing a stark counterpoint to Nelson’s ultimate statement: a disparaging portrait of Huey P. Newton.
Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.
If Nelson knew the black community, he would know that Huey remains a hero to black people, especially those still locked in the impoverished corners of America. In West Oakland, where the Party started, the locale of Huey’s murder is deemed sacred ground.
In his haste to disparage the Party by disingenuously casting his film as a documentary about the Party, Nelson overlooked the fact that Huey promoted the ideal that the Party never attempt to institutionalize itself, lest it become more entrenched in self-preservation than in promoting the goal of global revolution. Just as the Party’s existence was not grounded in the existence of any individual, its demise was inevitable and necessary in order to open the door for new generations to adapt to new conditions toward the ultimate, inevitable elimination of the American Empire and introduction of a new world society in which resources are equitably distributed among the people, according to need and ability.
I have asked Stanley Nelson to remove the snippets of his interview with me from his film. He has refused. My consolation lies in knowing that this film will not be relevant in the history of the Black Panther Party, which, fixed in the history of the United States, will be studied for generation upon generation to come, and in knowing that history will not remember Stanley Nelson at all.