‘Panther’ (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 03, 1995
Mario Van Peebles' "Panther" is a purring, sleekly crafted hagiography of a Black Panther Party without claws. Set in the movement's heyday, this provocative drama focuses on the party's bravura and beneficence, not its later corruption and excesses. The way Van Peebles portrays them, the Panthers are Eagle Scouts in arms.
Of course, Van Peebles is just as entitled to his vision—no matter how selective or factually skewed—as any other artist. The director and his screenwriter father, Melvin Van Peebles, point out that "Panther" is not a documentary but a dramatization. The trouble is they've said so at news conferences; the movie itself comes with no disclaimer.
"Panther" tells the story of the party's founding and rapid growth through a fictitious character, Judge (Kadeem Hardison of TV's "A Different World"). Judge is a Vietnam veteran who intermingles with party founders Huey Newton (Marcus Chong) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance). "Just two fed-up brothers," observes Judge over a compelling, grainy montage of jeering white bigots, black marchers and other images from the era.
Judge, less a protagonist than the audience's guide to key events in the organization's history, is attending college on a GI scholarship when he first encounters the Panthers selling Marxist literature on campus. An intelligent skeptic, Judge is initially wary of the gun-toting brothers in their black berets, but he is eventually won over by their passion for community activism: When the Panthers aren't engaged in standoffs with the Oakland "pigs," they're preaching black pride at food giveaways for hungry children or organizing peaceful protests with the local reverend (Dick Gregory).
Judge is not alone in his regard for the Panthers, whose message of all power to the people also lured Hollywood's leading liberals to the cause and, to the horror of J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Dysart), rallied young white activists across the San Francisco Bay. Hoover is not wearing a dress here (he surely would have been if Oliver Stone had directed), but he is portrayed as a black-fearing, communist-hating paranoid.
Certain that the Panthers are pawns of the communists, the film's Hoover sends his agents to California to find a snitch. When Newton learns of the scheme, he orders Judge to feed them disinformation in the guise of an informant. Unfortunately, Newton is in prison when Judge's fellow Panthers begin to suspect him of treachery.
Judge's travails give the film's episodic structure a dramatic cohesiveness, but the film's center stage belongs to the charismatic Newton, the businesslike Seale and the mouthy usurper, Eldridge Cleaver (Anthony Griffith). All three are romanticized here, coming across as selflessly focused on helping their people.
The candlelight vigils in Oakland, the speeches in Berkeley and other authentic events are all convincingly re-created by Van Peebles. What he does best is bring the era to life—with a lot of help from its music. People of all colors were empowered, and everything seemed possible.
"Panther" may not be factual, but it was never meant to be. It's a modern myth, a spiritual odyssey, an attempt to reawaken the spirit of '60s activism, to reconnect today's kids with yesterday's folk heroes.
Panther is rated R for profanity and violence.
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