Joining such recent films as “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” and “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” Stanley Nelson’s vital, vibrant “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” brings viewers a lively, intimate chapter of political history that feels stingingly urgent. As its title suggests, “The Black Panthers” examines the formation of the Black Panther Party, which emerged in the 1960s to educate and arm communities of color that were facing injustice and violence in the post-Jim Crow urban North.
Personified by the likes of party co-founder Huey Newton, who terrified the white powers that be when he began exploiting gun laws by openly carrying firearms while dealing with the police, the Black Panther Party quickly became a flashpoint in the nascent culture wars, offsetting its image of violence with healthy breakfast programs for kids and a collective sense of cool, unflappable style. Nelson, best known for his civil rights documentaries “Freedom Summer” and “Freedom Riders,” brings his signature clarity and facility with archival material to “The Black Panthers,” which focuses on such leaders as Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. Toggling between present-day interviews with historians and former party members, Nelson rescues the Black Panthers from their image as intemperate firebrands or beret-wearing pop culture icons. Here, they’re fully contextualized in a time period that, in its systemic inequalities and appalling cases of police harassment, feel uncannily like this one. (As a 1960s time capsule, “The Black Panthers” offers a fascinating bookend to “Best of Enemies,” the chronicle of the William F. Buckley Jr.-Gore Vidal debates of the same era.)
“The Black Panthers” also demonstrates, in infuriating detail, just how threatening the Panthers were to federal and local authorities alike, going into detail about J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO operation to infiltrate and eradicate them, by any means necessary. Nelson never interviews Seale or Angela Davis (who goes oddly unmentioned in the film). But he does make a convincing case that Fred Hampton, the party leader who was gunned down in his Chicago apartment in 1969, was precisely the kind of smart, politically savvy, personally charismatic leader that terrified Hoover and his minions. If “The Black Panthers” has been designed to leave viewers outraged and energized in equal measure, it succeeds with admirable style. It counts both as essential history and a primer in making sense of how we live now.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, graphic violence and adult themes. 113 minutes.