Stanley Nelson’s latest film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, is an important lesson. Not strictly a history lesson, charting the dramatic rise and fall of one of the most vibrant social and political movements that America and the world has ever seen, but a lesson for the current Black Lives Matter movement that continues to fight for the same economic opportunity, housing rights, access to education, and freedom from police brutality outlined in the Panthers’ original 10-point program, which was written almost a half century ago and formed the foundation of the party’s mission. Both a celebration and an elegy, Vanguard insists that we reflect on and learn from the past in the hopes that fifty years from now we’re not still fighting for the basic humanity of Black people.
On September 10, the Bertha Justice Institute at the Center for Constitutional Rights, as part of CCR’s monthly film series Freedom Flicks and the film’s New York premiere, proudly co-hosted a screening of Vanguard at the Film Forum, followed by a short conversation with Stanley Nelson, former lead counsel for the Black Panthers Gerald Lefcourt, and CCR’s own Executive Director, Vince Warren.
The sold-out theater buzzed as Stanley introduced the film. What followed was a bold and stylish tribute to the Black Panthers and the many individuals that made up its ranks. From artist Emory Douglas, whose beautiful and politically-charged illustrations galvanized a movement, to the party’s charismatic and controversial leader Huey Newton, Vanguard offers a virtual glossary of the elements that made the Panther movement so iconic, and for a time, so successful. All this is rounded out by a parallel analysis of the chief threats to the Panther party (and any movement poised to upset the status quo), namely in the form of the U.S. government and J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO program, which targeted civil rights activists and explicitly sought, among other things, to prevent the rise of a “black messiah” that might unify and uplift the Black community.
Starting with the Panthers’ beginnings as an armed citizens brigade, monitoring the police force and challenging systemic police brutality in Oakland, California, Nelson maps the party’s growth into a radical Black nationalist movement that, in addition to calling for an end to racial oppression, offered social programs like Free Breakfast for Children and free community health clinics in cities all across the country. On this journey, the Panthers became an emblem of Black liberation and Black pride and gave rise to an urban Black aesthetic that would captivate the country, enamor the media, and influence American culture for years to come.
Luminaries like Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and the tragically slain Fred Hampton (whose commanding oratory and whose dedication to broad-based coalition building posed perhaps the greatest threat to Hoover) light up the screen in archival footage. Interviews with former party members and allies Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Lefcourt, among others, give their stories resonance and humanity. Over the course of the documentary, Hampton’s story emerges as one of the most indelible examples of both a dream deferred and the insidious nature of the COITELPRO program and the lengths to which the government would go to crush the Black Panther movement. Reaching the heights of Greek tragedy, the outspoken, young movement leader would be gunned down in his own apartment by a unit of the Cooks County Illinois police based on information provided by the man who was literally closest to him, an FBI recruit and Fred Hampton’s bodyguard.
After the screening, Nelson, Lefcourt, and CCR’s Vince Warren took to the stage for a short conversation and Q&A with the audience. When Stanley was asked about how he saw the film, seven years in the making, relating to the current Black Lives Matter movement, he admitted that when protests over Mike Brown’s death and that of a string of unarmed Black men at the hands of the police exploded toward the end of the filmmaking process, he was shocked to find that after so many years “we hadn’t progressed any further than back then.” Lefcourt added that sadly, “the 10-point program could have been written today”.
The group also discussed the role movement lawyers played in supporting the party. Lefcourt discussed his role in the case of the Panther 21 covered in the film, where a group of 21 Black Panther members were arrested and accused of a terrorist plot to bomb two police stations. Due to Lefcourt’s tenacious lawyering, the government’s manufactured case was eventually dropped and all 21 defendants were acquitted of all charges. Lefcourt thanked his mentors, William Kunstler and Author Kinoy, trailblazing civil rights lawyers and founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights, for their vision and guidance during Lefcourt’s time with the Panthers. If it wasn’t plain enough that the room was engaging in living history, longtime activist and daughter of William Kuntsler, Karin Kunstler, joined the panelists onstage to a burst of applause.
An inspiring and vibrant film, Nelson’s Vanguard acts as a mirror, reminding us how, despite the election of the country’s first Black president, the fight for justice for Black people is ongoing. The shared origins of the Black Panther Party and the current Black Lives Matter movement, both forged in response to racist systems of police brutality, is not a coincidence. One can only hope that by learning from the past we can finish the work the Panthers started. All power to the people.