Review by Progress, African and Caribbean Progressive Study Group, London
The Mario Van Peebles film “Panther” tells the story of the rise and development of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, founded in October 1966 in Oakland, California. The founding of this party is regarded by many as one of the political high points of the 1960’s, a decade marked for it’s social and political upheavals across the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 focused widespread debate into the concept of non-violent social change and the political and philosophical leaning of the Civil Rights Movement which he personified.
This decade witnessed the emergence in the USA of the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 focused widespread debate around the concept of non-violent social change and the correctness of the political philosophy which he personified. The disillusionment with “non-violence” and the ideological contention over leadership, direction, strategy and tactics of the movement for equal rights for black people was embodied by the establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense whose leaders saw themselves as taking up Malcolm X’s legacy.
The film “Panther” attempts to tell the story of the Black Panther Party through a fictional character, a Vietnam veteran, who through a particular incident in his local neighbourhood gets drawn towards the social programme of the Party.
The film touches on some of the tenets of the Party’s agenda including the protest at the State Legislature in Sacramento and the community based Free Breakfast Programmes.
The film also attempts to show the relationship that the Black Panther Party tried to develop with other progressive organisations in the US at the time.
Portrayals of personalities as significant as Malcolm X or the Black Panther Party should not be delegated to the Hollywood film industry.
The role that the FBI had in the Panthers’ downfall is given a central role in the film through the fictional police informer. This issue is, however, dealt with in a very liberal manner with the state attack of the Counter Intelligence Programme (COINTELPRO) being seen as the problem of a few bad elements within the FBI. In reality this programme was the most elaborate act of subversion ever carried out against political groups in the USA up to that time.
There was serious political and ideological confusion in the film which did not assist viewers in understanding these important questions.
However, a debate has begun as to the legacy of the Black Panther Party and we should contribute to that debate. The Panthers were important for a number of reasons, the most important of which was their identification of the state as the source of peoples’ problems in the USA and internationally.
There are so many lessons to be learned from the experience of the Black Panther Party.
Their identification with socialism and revolution was an extremely important departure from the liberalism of the integrationists and the cultural nationalism of the separatists.
The Black Panther Party were from the community and they made the community their base. They saw their role as being organised defenders of the community from vicious state organised racism.
The founder members of the Panthers were young and lacked political experience. They underestimated the response of the state to an organisation of a revolutionary character. They also lacked a clear and consistent ideology. They drew their inspiration from many sources, including Chairman Mao’s “cultural revolution” in China and the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria. One example of what this meant in practice was their approach to the question of membership. Membership was very open and so very vulnerable to the admission of undisciplined and politically unstable elements. This meant that the party grew very quickly as an organisation and so was not able to control its development. This resulted in widespread infiltration by the state. Membership was very open and so very vulnerable to the admission of undisciplined and politically unstable elements.
The film is a fictionalised, inadequate account of the period and people should attempt to find out more about these times for themselves.
There is much to be learned from the experience of the Black Panther Party and it would be a mistake to fail to draw lessons from both their successes and their failures. The film fails to get to grips with these important issues. Despite this the film succeeds in portraying the Black Panther Party in a sympathetic and humane light but fails, perhaps intentionally, and almost predictably in terms of the important political and ideological analysis that should have been given.