Saturday 20 January 2018

Film - Black and proud: rise and fall of the Panthers

Style council: The Black Panthers popularised the 'black is beautiful' ideal
Style council: The Black Panthers popularised the 'black is beautiful' ideal

Paul Whitington

At the start of The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution, Stanley Nelson's gripping new documentary that opened this week at the IFI, we see news reports showing American cops attacking and beating black protesters. If you discount the hazy monochrome images, and the white commentator's frequent and alarming use of the word 'negro', the reports could have come from Ferguson, or Charleston, and might have been filmed yesterday.

In fact, those distressing scenes were filmed in 1965 and '66, and helped inspire the rise of a remarkable grass-roots political movement that briefly challenged America's status quo and scared the white Brahmins of Washington half to death. At their height, the Black Panthers had offices in 68 cities, and broad support among black Americans and the white far left. They were taken so seriously by J Edgar Hoover that he initiated a campaign of FBI infiltration and violence designed to break the group up.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organisation was routinely demonised in the media as ultra-violent, racist and terrorist in nature. But though they did carry guns, the Black Panthers spent a lot more time doing community work and organising breakfasts for disadvantaged children than they did shooting at white people, and their aims, though muddled, were lofty and admirable in the main. Though its time was brief, the Panthers' shadow has been long, and as Vanguard Of the Revolution demonstrates, its legacy is still bitterly contested by veterans today.

The Black Panthers group was born in the Californian city of Oakland. In the 1940s, millions of blacks had left the repression of the segregated south to seek new lives in the big cities of the north-east, and west. Most of them ended up in crumbling ghettoes where they faced a more insidious kind of racism, and where crime and poverty soon became endemic.

In Oakland, the problem was especially acute. By the mid-1960s unemployment was rife in the city's black districts, which were patrolled with exceptional brutality by the police, who stopped, harried and beat youths guilty of nothing more than an offence that, two decades later in Los Angeles, would become known as 'standing while being black'. The non-violent disobedience that had proved so successful for the Civil Rights movement was simply not fit for purpose here and in 1966, two young students at Merritt College decided more radical action was required.

In setting up the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton were inspired more by the radical black nationalism of Malcolm X than the passive resistance of Martin Luther King, but at first their aims were thoroughly pragmatic. Determined to protect their community from police harassment, Seale, Newton and a small group of associates decided to use Californian law, and the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, to their benefit. Free to bear guns in public, armed Panthers began following the Oakland police around, drawing near whenever they questioned black people.

Dressed in black leather jackets, dark glasses and Che Guevara berets, they would stand, arms folded, watching the cops and ready to intervene.

The Black Panthers had style and swagger, and while their hotchpotch agenda, incorporating elements of Marxism, Leninism, anti-imperialism and the black power ideas of Stokely Carmichael, was anything but coherent, it was attractive, and new. Young recruits flocked to their cause, especially after an attention-grabbing protest at the California Statehouse in 1967.

On May 2 of that year, the California State Assembly convened to discuss the 'Mulford Act', a hastily-drawn-up bill that would make the public bearing of loaded firearms illegal. It was aimed squarely at the Panthers, who turned up at the Sacramento Statehouse carrying guns and dressed like revolutionaries. They gained assess to the debating chamber and stood at the back glowering as the politicians tried to go about their work.

This eye-catching stunt brought the group to national prominence and gave the Panthers a new status which would both make and destroy them - while recruitment shot up, the Statehouse protest rattled the cages of some very powerful people.

California's governor Ronald Reagan was standing outside the Assembly greeting his fans when the Panthers turned up, and their antics made him their implacable enemy. Another prominent Californian, and President-in-waiting, Richard Nixon, also quietly took notice.

More importantly, FBI chief J Edgar Hoover was horrified by the sight of armed black men swanning about in an American political chamber, and secretly initiated a programme aimed at "neutralising" what he called "black nationalist hate groups". Anonymous letters were sent to key members claiming sabotage both sexual and political, and a number of black spies were enlisted to provide information on the Panthers' activities, weaknesses and whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were causing problems of their own. In October of 1967, Newton was arrested on suspicion of having shot dead an Oakland police officer called John Frey. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and jailed, but the Panthers began a 'Free Huey' campaign that gained wide support among African Americans and white students.

Most of those well-wishers believed Huey had been framed by 'the man' and was innocent. He became a folk hero, but Newton was a dangerous and volatile man, as he'd prove when he got released.

As the Black Panthers rose in prominence in the late 1960s, tensions within the leadership grew. Writer Eldridge Cleaver had become the party's spokesman, but he was a loose canon and soon began advocating guerilla warfare. He, Newton and Seale fell out and Cleaver fled to Algeria to set up the Panthers' first and only 'international branch'.

There he continued to irritate Washington by meeting and greeting Chinese leaders and the Viet Cong. Like Newton, he was not a terribly pleasant or consistent individual, and in the 1980s he became a born-again Christian and keen supporter of Ronald Reagan, who could probably have done without the endorsement.

Hoover's greatest fear was that a "black messiah" would arise in the ghetto and lead a popular uprising. Neither Newton nor Cleaver were ever going to fit that bill, but in 1968 a remarkable young man emerged from the group's Chicago chapter. Though just 21, Fred Hampton was a gifted orator and brilliant political organiser, and might have become the great leader the Panthers had always lacked.

He never got the chance. With the help of an informer called William O'Neal, the FBI and Chicago police conspired to assassinate the young leader, staging a raid in the dead of night and shooting him dead without any apparent resistance or provocation.

Things got worse when Newton was released from prison in 1970. During his three-year incarceration, his legion of fans had turned him into a kind of saint, but Newton ran amok once he got out, was implicated in a series of murders and dragged the Panthers into low criminality and extortion. He lived like some kind of crime lord in a high-rise Oakland penthouse and lost the run of himself entirely.

Seale would also be accused of involvement in several murders, including the killing of a man he suspected of having had an affair with his wife. But nothing was proved, and in 1973 he decided to run for mayor of Oakland.

He came pretty close to winning, but his eventual defeat left the Panthers in disarray.

Discredited by internal feuds, unexplained murders and Newton's plummeting reputation, the Black Panthers staggered on through the late 1970s, but were totally irrelevant by the time they collapsed in 1982.

What did it all mean, and did the Panthers really achieve anything? For a time they were a force for good in many black communities: they popularised the 'black is beautiful' ideal, and a tentative pride in being African-American.

But as Stanley Nelson's fine documentary suggests, they also arguably ramped up racial tensions instead of diffusing them, succumbed too predictably to corruption and seemed at times more interested in style than substance.

Brando speaks

It's a good week for documentaries, and running exclusively at Dublin's Light House is an intriguing new film about Marlon Brando. In making Listen To Me Marlon, director Stevan Riley was given access to hundred of hours of private tapes the actor made during his career, in which he talked about everything from his big films and pet causes to family, children and his troubled childhood. The recordings are interspersed with interviews and archive footage to paint a compelling picture of this enigmatic, brilliant man.

Whenever Brando opened his mouth he seemed to be performing, and in Listen To Me Marlon, moments of bluster are mixed with touching insights. "I rewrote the entire script," he boasts when asked about Apocalypse Now, but we also hear that he was drawn to play Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty because of his "contempt for authority". The shadow of his bullying father emerges whenever he discusses his early years: he admits to feeling "dumb" and having "a great sense of inadequacy due to my lack of education". He was drawn to acting because of his "curiosity about other people", and when asked what he might have done otherwise, he says: "I could have been a conman."

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