"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" is the first feature-length documentary to shed light on the Black Panther Party. To watch the full-length film, visit PBS.org/IndependentLens until March 18. (Independent Lens)

At the beginning of Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” former party member Ericka Huggins tells the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man touches a different part of the creature and comes away with a different impression of what he’s dealing with: a warm wall, a snake, a sharp weapon.

“That is quite often what happens with our descriptions of the Black Panther Party,” Huggins says. “We know the party we were in and not the entire thing. We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was complex.”

It’s not only Panthers and former Panthers who have struggled to make a comprehensive assessment of the organization and its members, who did everything from running free breakfast programs for schoolchildren and sickle cell anemia screenings to engaging in gun battles with the police. And with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s Super Bowl halftime performance, in which she was backed up by a troupe of dancers in Panther-style black berets, returning the Panther legacy to the conversation, it’s harder to think of a better moment for PBS to be screening Nelson’s film; it airs at 9 p.m. tonight as part of “Independent Lens.”

There’s a strong tendency in American politics to want people and organizations to be judged good or bad, to feed their best and worst deeds through some sort of formula that will spit out a clear-cut verdict. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” asks audiences to do something entirely different, and to consider that the party could have been many things to many people simultaneously: the source of vital “survival programs”; a militant organization intent on waging war with the cops; and the object of extraordinary government persecution.

“People joined for all kinds of reasons,” said party member Landon Williams, though he pointed to the Panthers’ 10-point program as a basic organizing and orientation hook.

The “survival programs,” including free groceries, health clinics and a school breakfast program, drew some members. “We were showing love for our people,” reflected Panther David Lemieux. “If you know that these men and women are going to feed my child in the morning, that’s a big deal.” The party’s economic program, and its focus on housing and jobs, also allowed the Panthers to expand in Northern cities, where racism was not always as violent or overt as it was in Southern states. Before he was killed by police, Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was working to build a broad-based coalition that included Panthers, members of the Young Lords, a Latino gang and of the Young Patriots Organization, which aided white Appalachian migrants to the city.

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" is the first feature-length documentary to shed light on the Black Panther Party. To watch the full-length film, visit PBS.org/IndependentLens until March 18. (Independent Lens)

For some women, the promise of gender equality was a draw; despite the Panthers’ macho public image, historian Clayborne Carson notes that “The reality is the majority of the rank and file by the end of the ’60s are women.” There was a gap between Panther rhetoric and the reality. “We tried to change some of the clear gender roles so women had guns and men cooked breakfast for children,” Elaine Brown reflects, noting that they didn’t manage to build a new world order. After all, she explained, “We didn’t get these men from revolutionary heaven.”

And there’s no doubt that a significant part of the party’s appeal was cultural and aesthetic; Knowles-Carter’s performance at the Super Bowl was part of a long tradition. From the sight of a black power salute on “Soul Train” to Emory Douglas’ illustrations for the party’s paper to their endlessly photographed personal style, the Panthers were adept at creating and propagating powerful visual symbolism.

And these images weren’t just communication tools; they were part and parcel of the project of black empowerment. Jamal Joseph credits the Black Panthers with promoting the idea not simply that “black is beautiful,” but that urban African American beauty could be a specific source of pride. “We were a phenomenon, the way that we walked, and talked, and dressed. We had swag,” Huggins recalled. The Panthers had a flair that appealed even to more moderate activists: “You wanted to be this,” recalled Julian Bond, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.


Women perform a drill with Black Panther Party flags. (Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch)

To some Panthers, the most powerful manifestation of that empowerment was the opportunity to commit violence. There’s no question that law enforcement agencies behaved in egregious and sometimes even murderous ways in their pursuit, but it’s also clear that there were Panthers who relished the opportunity to do harm, even to their fellow party members.

Bobby Hutton died in 1968 because Eldridge Cleaver had recruited him to be part of a planned attack on Oakland police officers. Describing a 1969 shootout between party members and police at the Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles, one of the Panthers recalled that “I felt free. I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. I was making my own rules.” And Huggins, who was herself tried for conspiracy in the torture and murder of suspected informant Alex Rackley, left the party after being physically abused by Huey Newton, one of the many acts of violence that would come to characterize his later life.

This incoherence stemmed at least in part from the rapid growth of the party, as well as the differing priorities and personalities of the Black Panthers’ leaders.

“It was destabilizing in the sense that it was somewhat chaotic the way the party was growing. It was too fast and too big,” Kathleen Cleaver said, describing the process by which the national party tried to send liaisons to the chapters that were springing up across the country. And William Randolph said that the pace of recruitment made it difficult to create a cohesive membership. “There was no screening process. There was no ‘Why are you here? What do you expect to have happen while you’re here? What are you trying to accomplish?'” Randolph said. “We had no idea who any of these people were.”

As is clear from the opening moments of the film, Nelson is interested in presenting the Black Panther Party in all its complexity, rather than trying to render a neat historical verdict about the organization and its members. And he does that not just by interviewing many party members, but also police officers who felt the party’s influence.

Ray Gaul, a veteran of the Oakland police department, describes how unnerving it was to be monitored by armed Panthers while he was making arrests. Ron McCarthy, who served on the Los Angeles Police Department’s original SWAT team, suggests that while violent rhetoric about the police “Didn’t bother us when it was spoken by the Panthers. But when it was picked up by college students, them saying that? That definitely bothered us.”

And while McCarthy and Pat McKinley, another LAPD veteran, make no bones about their belief that the Panthers were at worst terrorists and at best a violent criminal organization, McKinley at least acknowledges the context in which the Panthers arose. One day, while patrolling a Los Angeles neighborhood, McKinley greeted a little girl, only to get an unexpected response. “She said ‘F––– you, pig,’ and I thought, we have lost it. We have flat lost it,” McKinley reflected.

The Black Panthers represent a missed opportunity, a moment when people in positions of power looked at a response to injustice and saw only the extremity of the response, rather than the desperation that produced it. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is an acknowledgment that even as we try to pin down the party’s legacy, we may still be missing the point.