From its founding in 1966 to its dissolution in 1982, the Black Panthers struck fear into the hearts of skittish white people all over America. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution moves through the entire history of the party, hitting all its major milestones and the notable figures involved. It’s very much the kind of doc destined to play on American Experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it does mean that the film works as little more than a solid primer.
The weakness here is the need to tackle the entire history of the Panthers. Given that the organization has endured decades of badmouthing from pop culture, correctives are a helpful, even necessary resource. But director Stanley Nelson has demonstrated that he works best when making films about more specific subjects. It’s one of the reasons his Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple is so haunting.
And in certain sections, this doc manages to shine. A sequence about the tragically brief work of Fred Hampton, who was a rising star within the party until he was murdered by the police at age 21, truly conveys the hope he inspired in the community and how crushed they were by his death. In working against the Panthers, the FBI’s COINTELPRO sought to eliminate possible “messiah figures,” and Hampton’s example communicates how ruthless the authorities were in combating their agitation for change.
Other sections sag. The possibility that the FBI encouraged escalation of tensions between the Panthers and police by secretly supplying them with guns is raised and then dropped within the span of 30 seconds. It’s worth asking how a proven filmmaker like Nelson isn’t able to get a wide-reaching project, such as a miniseries about the Panthers, off the ground. That’s the kind of breadth this topic deserves, and the kind of freedom Nelson could use.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015.