The Black Panthers documentary irons out the wrinkles of history

Stanley Nelson's new film doesn’t shake our suspicion that the stories being told have calcified into legend. Plus: Fresh Dressed.

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The Black Panthers have been the subject of one passable dramatised film (Mario Van Peebles’s Panther) and a slew of documentaries, most of which have soft-pedalled the party’s less progressive qualities as blithely as they have fetishised the roll-neck/beret/leather jacket combo. Stanley Nelson’s new documentary exhibits these and other problems but it does at least function as a primer to the Panthers. No mention is made of parallels between then and now, even in describing the police brutality that helped necessitate and nurture the movement. The relevance is fiercer for being left unstated.

Stitching together new interviews with party members and copious amounts of archive footage, the film traces the Panthers’ beginnings in Oakland, California, where they launched self-defence operations, welfare initiatives such as the children’s free breakfast programme, and the armed monitoring of arrests of African Americans. The police and FBI retaliated vigorously; displays of aggression against the Panthers were coupled with a sophisticated use of informants. One leader, the charismatic Fred Hampton, was shot dead without him knowing his own bodyguard was a snitch.

The film isn’t best placed to offer any critical commentary on, say, the Panthers’ idolatry of Stalin and North Korea. It’s wall-to-wall icons instead – from Huey P Newton tearing off his shirt, rock-god-style, to Eldridge Cleaver giving a bizarre speech in which he promises to beat Ronald Reagan to death with a marshmallow. At a fundraiser at Jane Fonda’s townhouse, party members lined the walls as guests sipped from champagne flutes. “We folded our arms and looked like we were ready to kill someone,” recalls one Panther, adding with a chuckle: “The stars loved that!”

It’s not quite as glossy as an episode of MTV Cribs – we don’t get any Panthers showing us into their bedrooms and saying, “This is where the magic happens” – but nor is it noticeably more probing. A jukebox soundtrack (James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron) bestows a conspicuous neatness on the material. If there is a corrective to that, it lies in the contrast between the snaps from the 1960s, showing lean, defiant young men and women staring into the camera to see who blinks first, and those people today. Age has not withered them exactly, but many now look dazed by the magnitude of their own contribution to history.

In other instances, the film doesn’t shake our suspicion that the stories being told have calcified into legend. A chunk of screentime is rightly set aside for the murder of Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old shot by police while surrendering. But if Nelson asked about Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old tortured and killed by fellow Panthers who suspected him of being an informant, then it didn’t make the final cut. Rather misleadingly, the picture begins with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which is intended to show, as Ericka Huggins explains, that “we know the party we were in but not the entire story”. On the contrary, the documentary presents the smoothest possible reading of history; if this is an elephant, the wrinkles on its skin have been ironed out.

African-American culture figures strongly in another documentary, Fresh Dressed, about hip-hop fashion. The fun, fizzy images make The Warriors look austere – the 1970s Bronx gang get-up (cut denim jackets over leather, festooned with hand-sewn lettering and mink fur); the Mondrian prints by Cross Colours that went stratospheric after being worn on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; the rappers’ laces that were stretched, starched and ironed to look fat as well as phat. And the stories are illuminating, from Tommy Hilfiger handing out clothes in the ghetto, much as a dealer might give that first clinching hit for free, to the lightning raids made by poor kids from the projects on Fifth Avenue stores selling Polo gear.

Despite some goofy animated inserts, this would all work better as a DVD extra than a fully fledged film. It lacks an arc – it’s a rise-and-rise story. And the film-makers’ love for the fashions precludes any serious take-down of the corporations that made billions from exploiting the DIY street look. A-list interviewees are on hand to supply Z-grade quotes. “Fresh is more important than money,” Kanye West declares from his private beach, and Pharrell reminds us: “By the time we hit the 2000s it was kinda like, ‘wow’, you know . . .” Unlike the baggy fabrics, the material is stretched a little thin. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister