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‘Panther’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 05, 1995

SO MUCH energy, deep-rooted anger and Hollywood pathos are pumped into the hagiographic "Panther," it's a wonder the thing doesn't start firing rounds into the air. Nevertheless, the movie makes absorbing, agitprop entertainment, as Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton (played respectively by Courtney B. Vance and Marcus Chong) battle J. Edgar Hoover's police state like so many Robins 'n the Hood.

Sorting fact from fiction is a thorny thing—unless you're something of a social historian. Clearly, the movie's about a significant period in American history, and filmmaker Mario Van Peebles (working with his father and scriptwriter Melvin) is more emotional than dispassionately dogged about the facts. "Panther" is a fictionalized account—an interpretation—of the stormy period (between 1966 and 1970) when the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense used weapons, retaliatory belligerency and empowerment training for their troops and people to mobilize against perpetual police harassment.

Kadeem Hardison plays Judge, a (fictional) good-natured Vietnam veteran from Oakland, who has been through college on the GI bill. Although initially concerned by Newton and Seale's anti-establishment activities—including the Panthers' monitoring of police, while enforcing their civic right to bear arms—he is slowly drawn to the cause. Anticipating that the local police will enlist Judge as an infiltrator (because, Newton notes, he "fits the profile"), Newton activates Judge as a double agent.

Newton's instincts turn out to be correct. Hardison responds positively to undercover cop Joe Don Baker's recruitment and starts to work with both sides. Inevitably, his position becomes a risky one.

For all its authentic details (the times and dates of real-life incidents are faithfully reported, as are key FBI secret memos of the period), "Panther" doesn't retell history so much as select from it. You will see nothing of Huey Newton's drug dealing during the 1970s, for instance. And despite the film's rosy portrayal of Newton and Seale, "Panther" has been accused of being "90 percent" untrue by the real-life Seale. The film's strongest element is its articulation of the black man's lament against America. When Anthony Griffith, playing Eldridge Cleaver, leads a group of Panthers to chant repetitively "[expletive] Reagan!," the movie's doing more than representing old-time anger at a California governor. This is a clarion call for interested parties to join in.

The forces of evil are clear, unambiguous villains from the Oliver Stone factory. Paranoid FBI director Hoover (Richard Dysart) conducts Machiavellian, anti-Panther sessions with a nasty attack dog at his side. Gov. Reagan is used ironically against himself in old newsreels. Tubby California cop Baker, goosed by the FBI, aggressively seeks to padlock the Panthers. The Mafia floods the poor, black towns of America with cheap heroin—in this movie, Hoover's ultimate anti-Panther holocaust.

Treacherous blacks are in force too, including a street dealer whose ignoble act indirectly causes the ambush of key Panthers. And in the kind of racism "The Birth of a Nation" director D.W. Griffith himself would have applauded, an FBI agent of mixed race (morally tainted by his miscegenation) advocates color-blindness and works energetically for the police state.

"Panther" is also rigged with intentional and unintentional timeliness. Black America remains in about as much trouble now (with murder, drugs, teenage pregnancy, AIDS and the backlash against affirmative action) as ever. So the issues of black empowerment are still amazingly pertinent. It's also an inescapable (and presumably unwanted) irony that "Panther" should be released when the nation's attention is focused on paramilitary groups that advocate armed resistance to the government.

How to sort this all out? Firstly, if historical accuracy is ignored, the movie's absorbing stuff, a rousing blend of drama, creative interpretation and likable performances. Chong makes a charmer out of Newton, and Vance is similarly amiable as Seale. And comedian Chris Rock is amusing as a local drunk who sidles up to Baker—watching the neighborhood rather conspicuously from his car. When Baker flashes his cop ID, Rock feigns awe and slurs, "Ooooh, you da poh-lice! You couldn't be just a plain old white man, could ya?"

This fuzzy version of the revolution shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying the movie, and appreciating its attempt to uplift a race. But on the other hand, it shouldn't stop anyone from criticizing it either.

PANTHER (R) — Contains profanity, historical interpretation and violence.

Copyright The Washington Post

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