directed by Mario Van Peebles
starring Kadeem Hardison
Marcus Chong and Courtney B. Yance
"Panther" is a hard hitting story of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
Director Mario Van Peebles seeks to round out the persisting image of the Panthers as gun-toting militants, but gives only fleeting recognition to the community services they provided. The film's true focus is on the empowerment that the Black Panthers found by defying their oppressors with arms.
"Panther" opens with a barrage of news clips showing us documentary footage of racial violence from the '60s. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks, and is silenced by a shot. Malcolm X surfaces with his declaration, "We are nonviolent with anyone who is nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us." He, too, is silenced by a shot. In this climate, Huey Newton (Marcus Chong) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance) found the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Judge (Kadeem Hardison), a Vietnam vet studying at Berkeley, becomes involved when a friend persuades him to monitor the police handling of a community demonstration. When a police squad comes to "deal with" the peaceful neighborhood protest, they deliberately cover their badges before diving into the crowd of mourners. Van Peebles' camera careens through the crowd as the sickening thuds of police clubs thrashing innocent protestors rise to an unbearable crescendo above the images of their bloodied bodies being dragged into police vans.
"As long as we suffered in silence," observes the voice of Judge, "the authorities left us alone. But that silent suffering shit was about to end." Crammed into a holding cell, an informal rap session about how to defend Black rights lets the various voices in the community be heard: the pacifist preacher, the young hotheads and derisive random riffraff (played by screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles, the director's father). Above it all rises the calm authority of Huey Newton and his persuasive argument for Black self-defense.
At first the Black Panthers dazzle the Black community with their fearlessness in the face of white authority. Drawing on a solid knowledge of California law and legally armed with imposing firearms, Huey Newton in particular takes vicious pleasure in spitting, "Pigs!" into the faces of befuddled policemen.
The mere sight of armed Black men is enough to send most policemen scurrying for cover, and the Panthers experience the exhilaration of being able to stand up, for the first time, against the tyrants who have been ruling their lives.
The Panthers are not anti-white, but anti-oppression. In a scene that refers directly to Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," a couple of young white students ask Newton if they can help with the Party. Unlike Malcolm X, who dismissed a similarly well-meaning white student with a brusque "No," Newton takes the time to explain kindly to the students that it is important for Blacks to do this for themselves.
Van Peebles begins using black-and-white segments to create the effect of documentary footage, a la "Schindler's List." By using real news clips in the film's opening scenes, then using fake news footage of his actors later to advance the plot, Van Peebles jeopardizes his credibility as an historian. Already treading a tightrope between fiction and reality, this method of "historicizing fiction" puts the viewer on guard. Although the fictional documentary footage is noncontroversial and works well as a device to sum up Panther activities, its contribution to the effect of a documentary is somewhat duplicitous.
Contradictory to the vague popular idea that the Panthers were an outcropping of the Black Muslims, "Panther" portrays the Oakland Muslims as an indolent group of pretentious pseudo-Africans who have trouble accepting that they're not in Africa. Soon the women of the Black Muslims, led by the independent Alma (Nefertiti) tire of being asked to "bring more libations" to these self-important neo-old-worlders and join the Panthers.
But there is a darker side to the Panthers' promising beginning. Tensions erupt in the wake of Betty Shabazz's visit when the Panthers discover that her Muslim escort had not loaded their guns. The message is clear and chilling: these guns are meant to be used. From then on, each encounter with the police is fraught with horrible tension; the police will not continue to tolerate this threat to their authority, while the Panthers are prepared to defend themselves and the Black community at the first sign of violence.
If only the "enemy" were painted in half as much detail as the Black community. The policemen are unrelentingly brutal and mindless in their hatred. Hoover (Richard Dysart) and his aide (Beau Windham) are ridiculous in their suspicions of Communist influence behind the Panthers; the one black FBI agent is a robotic mouthpiece for integrationism. Like the Black people of Oakland, we can't fathom what fuels their intense hatred, and can only accept the police as an omnipresent menace. The film's interpretation depends on the individual viewer's ability to conceive of law enforcers as a malignant force.
Although the Panthers are soon de-armed by the Mulford Gun Control Bill, Hoover's pressure to eradicate them leads the FBI to seek the aid of informants and, finally, drug dealers. And therein lies the downfall of the Panthers. Like Van Peebles' earlier work, "New Jack City," "Panther" ends with a lament about drugs, whose ravaging effects spread from the hood and into the rest of America, devastating us all. In this new fight, we are all united against a common enemy.
Although many messages surface during "Panther," they are absorbed in a story line that adeptly navigates a course between various issues: empowerment, activism, feminism, integrationism vs. separatism, toleration, and finally, the perils of drug abuse. Rather than being distracting, the voices of these divergent view points add depth to the film.
The major flaw in "Panther" is its lack of character development which leaves one side of the conflict utterly without any motivation beyond irrational racism. Still, the film is a thought-provoking and deeply moving story of a movement in Black history whose implications are increasingly relevant to today's youth.