The Black Panthers Movie’s Luster and Tarnish


A new movie, The Black Panthers, has planned showings in 31 cities nationwide this fall, after playing at 34 film festivals previously. The film does a good job at showing the positive community organizing done by the radical leftist group in the 1960s. The film also presents many great interviews and archival footage, but strays into historical revisionism in offering an overly negative view of the top three national Black Panther leaders.

 Vanguards of the Revolution

Morgan State University Professor Stanley Nelson listed the subtitle of his movie, “Vanguards of the Revolution,” harking back to the language used at that time. These words could be taken as either the overly optimistic voice of some radical activists or the propaganda used by the FBI. The Black Panthers quotes J. Edgar Hoover’s famous line about the Panthers being the number one threat to national security.

The film begins by showing how the organization started as a civil rights political party opposing police brutality and setting up many survival programs. These programs included free breakfast for poor children, free medical clinics, and housing organizing groups. It also included political education programs, particularly through its national newspaper.

The Black Panthers includes speeches by 20-year-old Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton as well as snippets of speeches by national Panther cofounder, Bobby Seale. Hampton speaks his famous line, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” Nelson presents National Black Panther Secretary of Communications Kathleen Cleaver a few times, and includes short, but good, interviews with her.

The movie then details the attacks on the Panthers, starting with the police shootout with Huey Newton, where he and a police officer were both shot. It’s at this point in the movie that Nelson fails to show why Newton was stopped by police and fails to mention what has been noted in several books about the Panthers, which is that the police had a list of Black Panther license plates on them that they allegedly intended to target.

Highlighting the FBI’s War on the Panthers

The Black Panthers does do a relatively good job of showing several key instances of the FBI’s Counterintelligence program targeting the Panthers, including details on the New York Black Panther leadership, which came to be known as the New York 21. It leaves out some of the top names, such as Lumumba Shakur, who headed the New York’s largest chapter in Harlem, as well as Afeni Shakur, Assata Shakur, and Bronx Panther leaders Sekou Odinga and Zayd Shakur.

Director Stanley Nelson mentions some of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) tactics, but fails to mention them the context of the split between Huey Newton’s national Oakland Panther office and the New York chapter. Historians Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall discusses in Agents of Repression and The COINTELPRO Papers the fake letters that helped accomplish this split.

Nelson also gives details about the targeting of the Chicago Black Panthers that included the tragic murder of Fred Hampton in his bed. It further shows excellent footage of the FBI targeting the Los Angeles Black Panther office four days later.

Again, omissions are far from a major issue when a film needs to be a reasonable length, but they do bear pointing out. There is also no mention of the murders of the original LA Panther leaders, Jon Huggins, and Al “Bunchy” Carter or the false imprisonment of Los Angeles Panther leader Geronimo Pratt a year or two after a sniper targeted him during an attack on his Panther office.

 Incorrect Shaming of Top Panther Leaders?

A much more problematic aspect of The Black Panthers is the way it portrays two of the top three national Black Panther leaders, without the full context of their targeting and contradicting the accounts in well-documented books on Eldridge Cleaver. It quotes people calling him “crazy” early on, when he was made the Panthers National Minister of Information. It also doesn’t relate the details of the 1968 police attempt to murder Cleaver. After several negative comments about Cleaver, Nelson depicts Cleaver as enlisting young Panther Bobby Hutton in joining him to attack the police. This account appears spliced together from interviews with Panthers and taken out of context. Many books covering this incident, such as The COINTELPRO Papers, detailed how the Oakland Police “Panther Squad” deliberately provoked this attack on Cleaver and Hutton. Another book, Bitter Grain, stated that Cleaver and fellow Panthers put the word out that Oakland activists shouldn’t riot as police would use it as an excuse to kill Panther leaders. Interviews of former military snipers by historians such as attorney William Pepper confirm this belief. Despite having one of the highest per capita black populations, Oakland was one of the only major cities that didn’t riot after King’s assassination. Police then used this as an excuse to attack Cleaver and Hutton and, in the film, Nelson appears to blame Cleaver for Hutton’s murder at the hands of police.

The Black Panthers rightfully discusses some COINTELPRO tactics around the time of the split between Huey Newton and Cleaver, yet it does not describe exactly how these tactics were used in this split, only seeming to blame Newton and Cleaver’s impulsiveness. This split also set Newton against the imprisoned New York Panther leadership, yet the film suggests the division was a natural disagreement, rather than the result of  COINTELPRO tactics. Churchill and Vander Wall’s books, along with the film, All Power to the People!, detail the U.S. intelligence and the undercover agents used to create these divisions.

Too Much Testimony from a Likely Undercover Agent

The COINTELPRO Papers and Agents of Repression, present many Panther reports that one particular Oakland Panther, Elaine Brown, was actually a U.S. intelligence undercover agent. All Power to the People! contains copious details and statements from respected Black Panthers regarding Brown’s history and work for U.S. intelligence, as guided by her self-reported, lifetime “mentor” Jay Richard Kennedy. David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Martin Luther King, Bearing the Cross, details how Jay Kennedy was the CIA’s top spy in the Civil Rights movement. MLK’s friend and historian, William Pepper, also notes Jay Kennedy’s top spy work.

In All Power to the People!, Bobby Seale states that many Panthers told him of Brown’s spy work and influence over Huey Newton, encouraging him to expel other Panther leaders and take apart the organization. Most importantly, when Brown threatened to split the black vote within the Green Party, which was considering running Congressperson Cynthia McKinney for president, McKinney backers Kathleen Cleaver and Geronimo Pratt (changed to Geronimo Ji Jaga by this time) took action. The two Panther leaders published a letter from Geronimo detailing Brown’s reported psychiatric hospitalization, infiltration of the Panthers, and aiding of U.S. intelligence in the murders of LA Panther leaders Carter and Huggins.

Brown was one of many undercover agents used to manipulate Huey Newton. Two other confirmed undercover agents surrounding Newton included Richard Aoki and Earl Anthony. Anthony admitted his agent status in his book, Spitting in the Wind. In the film All Power to the People!, New Haven Panther George Edwards quotes CIA whistleblower John Stockwell saying that from 1971 onwards the CIA waged psychological warfare on Newton. The Black Panthers does a huge disservice to Newton’s legacy in mainly showing Newton’s negative actions, instead of the mass of evidence backing up the psychological warfare being perpetrated on him—evidence that also indicates that many Black Panther leaders experienced similar psychological warfare for years and kept repeating the police-proposed myth that Newton probably died in a random drug deal.

Various writers, including Churchill and Vander Wall, have presented eyewitness reports, along with police and FBI foul play around Newton’s murder, that support how U.S. intelligence assassinated Huey Newton in 1989. By that time, Newton had received his PhD, started a Panther school, was working to free Geronimo Pratt, and had contacted an active New York Black Panther about reconvening the organization. Stanley Nelson’s film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, brings more awareness to many great aspects of this legendary, armed community organizing group and while it also provides a balanced perspective on The Black Panthers, it’s too bad that some overly negative portrayals might tarnish some of the movie’s positive messages by excluding the U.S. intelligence’s influence.

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John Potash is author of The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders, and the newly released, Drugs as Weapons Against Us.