The Mailbag: The ‘Black Panthers,’ Was That 50 Years Ago?

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

The Black Panthers happened. The 1960s happened. We have to hope that our education system hasn’t failed the huge chunk of our population that is under 50 and may not understand what happened and why it happened during that tumultuous decade.

The Cuban missile crisis made nuclear war almost thinkable. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His brother, Bobby, was assassinated five years later while seeking the Democratic Party nomination for president. The Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Several American cities were burning. Malcom X was assassinated. The civil rights movement exploded, as did the women’s liberation movement. The long, costly and controversial war in Vietnam was on course to take the lives of 58,000 American troops and countless Vietnamese, plus many more thousands of wounded. Anti-war protests seemed to be everywhere, including many college campuses. The military draft was in effect. Police were called in to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Kent State was about to happen.

Today’s politically poisonous environment and perilous economic situation for many can cause despair. But when you think back to the 1960s one realizes what this country has come through before, without going too far back in history. So the new Independent Lens film, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," even though it focuses on the Panthers, is a helpful reminder of that extraordinary era and, in one sense, what the country has moved on from. Yet it is impossible to watch this film and not think about how the grievances and racial tensions of those days still seem sadly and, in some respects, contemporary.

In the middle of that ’60s decade, and into that already explosive mix of events, emotions and conflicts, came the formation of the Black Panther Party, a complex, controversial and never easy to define movement that electrified some and terrified others. It started out as a protest and protection movement against claims and instances of police brutality against blacks and grew, for several years, into what this two-hour documentary aired on Feb. 16 called the “Vanguard of the Revolution.”

The film is the work of Stanley Nelson, a highly-acclaimed and honored filmmaker, and it has won considerable and widespread praise – with some mildly critical points made here and there – in reviews by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston GlobeOregonLive and on film sites such as Variety and A.V. Club.

You could not tell that from the email in my box, however. As seems to be the case these days, everybody who writes to me or calls is critical. Does anybody like these programs or see value in them? I would think so, but aside from the reviewers, I couldn’t prove it.

I got more than 80 emails. All critical. Many of them came in soon after the broadcast aired, and seemed to be in response to a detailed critique by Lee Stranahan, a writer whose work appeared on the conservative website Breitbart and who pointed out to his readers that if they had concerns about the journalistic integrity of PBS and the program they could write to me.

So Stranahan’s critique is central to what people wrote to me about. You can read his full report by clicking on the link above, but here is an abbreviated version of his main points, followed by a response from Independent Lens, a sampling of letters from viewers, and some thoughts of mine.

Stranahan's View:

Stranahan calls the program “a whitewashed piece of propaganda about the radical black nationalist group. The frightening thing,” he says, “is that films such as Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution act as history lessons for passive viewers, creating the illusion of education while actually working as propaganda.” He then goes on to “explode myths from the film’s first 25 minutes.” Here they are, as Stranahan lists them:

“1) Buries The Black Panther’s Communism

“The film goes very briefly over the Black Panthers core manifesto, 10 Point Program. You wouldn’t know this from watching the documentary, but the Panther’s 10 Point Program is an explicitly communist, black liberation document. [He provides two examples].

“2) Covering for Huey P. Newton’s Cop Killing

“Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was indicted for killing a police officer, John Frey, in 1967. Newton was charged with first-degree murder, assault and kidnapping but the PBS documentary completely leaves out all the details. Instead, they briefly show news footage that mentions the death of Frey for about 4 seconds and then the film goes into a five minute segment about the 'Free Huey' movement. Why free Huey? Did Huey deserve to be freed? What did he do exactly?

“3) No Mention of Eldridge Cleaver’s Rape Brags

“A lot of time is spent talking about Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information for the Black Panther party who became the group’s primary spokesman after Huey P. Newton was sent to jail for killing John Frey. The PBS documentary describes Eldridge Cleaver’s appeal to intellectuals, both black and white. They cite his book Soul on Ice as the reason for Cleaver’s popularity with the smart set. The film makes no mention, however, that Eldridge Cleaver bragged in [his book] Soul on Ice about how he targeted white women for rape after first practicing rape on black women.”

A Response from Independent Lens and Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

1) ​The film gives ample coverage to the idea that the Black Panther Party had radical politics including the clip cited by Mr. Stranahan that speaks to the Panther's ideology being opposed to capitalism. There was no attempt or desire to disguise this. It comes 13 minutes into the film because that is when we set the stage for the group's growth.

2) ​There are innumerable details of this and every person's story that had to be left out due to time. That is the nature of any historical film. In fact, Huey Newton was tried and acquitted. It's not up to us to say whether he "deserved to be freed," nor is it up to us to voice an opinion on his guilt or innocence when his case was adjudicated by the United States criminal justice system.

3) Again, there are many details that must inevitably be left out of a 113-minute film. An interviewee states that the book was a best seller. We did not mention any details about the content of the book at all.

Here Are Some Letters

There are many programs on PBS that my family enjoys watching. However, it was with great dismay that I viewed Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. This documentary sanitized their philosophy, denied their leaders criminal behavior, and glossed over the hate they spread with violence. A documentary should be honest even if not comfortable to everyone. Many of the shows you present are honest and uncomfortable. This one was not honest in the least.

D. Jeter, Gibsonia, PA

~ ~ ~

As the wife & mother of 3 NYC Police Officers, I was offended by your sanitization of the Black Panther Movement. They were criminals with the sole intention to murder police officers. My husband's patrol car was machine gunned by H. Rap Brown in Harlem, during the height of their hatred and criminal activity. He captured Brown that night. After his release years later, H. Rap Brown moved to Georgia where he finally murdered an officer in cold blood. My husband was sent down to testify against him. He is now away for good. Unbalanced reporting does not serve any good, especially during these volatile times.

Mary Dalia, Bayside, NY

~ ~ ~

Tell the whole story of the Black Panthers...the ugly truth of their radical communist leanings. Not the "white washed" version as shown on the PBS documentary and if you cannot do so then please stop wasting our tax dollars for this junk.

Cranford, NJ

~ ~ ~

"Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" is presented as a Documentary - implying that it is a factual report. The criminal activities of this group were ignored. The result is a propaganda piece presenting them as heroes. As someone who lived through that period and witnessed it, I was offended by the way history was converted into fiction.

Bob Smith, Hickory, NC

~ ~ ~

As a child of the 60s and 70s I find it imperative that you know the platform of the Black Panthers in its entirety. Once viewed, I think you then need to compare the written BP platform to the documentary. Research the lives of the BP leaders and then determine where the integrity of public broadcasting may be compromised by showing the documentary in question. The Black Panthers were not the Martin Luther Kings of the era - in fact, African American activists who are rock stars, producers, actors, entertainers are enslaved to capitalism - not enslaved to another racial group.

Dupo, IL

~ ~ ~

I was very disappointed that our public tv stations chose to air the Black Panthers documentary yesterday and seemed to celebrate in the racist and violent message that the group stands for and has stood for since its inception. How was this divisive type show any better than if you had celebrated the KKK with the same inaccuracies and falsehoods? I am very interested in your response as to why PBS is choosing to be an outlet for racial division and propagating such a position that has much potential to harm our great country.

Murrieta, CA

~ ~ ~

I watched the PBS "Black Panther's" program last night. I found it interesting that Eldridge Cleaver's rape convictions and views were never mentioned. The reason he was in prison, was never mentioned. Huey Newton's involvement in the killing of a policeman was not acknowledged as a crime. Violence only begets more violence. Peaceful protests take a long time, but eventually bring change. As a child & young adult of the 60's & 70's, I believed in protest, but NEVER violence. I do not believe that PBS gave a true picture of the Black Panther organization and the cause they were fighting for: Equality with no cost.

DJ Stan, Los Angeles, CA

~ ~ ~

I watched the documentary on the Black Panthers the other night. It did not present a balanced view of either the organization or events surrounding its emergence. Several of its key members were criminals by accepted standards (our common laws) yet there was no mention of the seedier side of the movement. Please consider a follow-up piece to set the record straight regarding Huey Newton's manslaughter conviction and Eldridge Cleaver's "rape of white women" strategy for political means.

Redmond, WA

My Thoughts

I’m on the side of the mainstream critics and film reviewers cited above on this one, agreeing, for example, with the assessments of A. O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, who calls it an “excellent documentary” that “sticks close to the facts” and leaves “to the viewers the work of drawing lessons and analogies for our own time,” and The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, who says if the film “has been designed to leave viewers outraged and energized in equal measure, it succeeds with admirable style. It counts both as essential history and a primer in making sense of how we live now.”

On the other hand, I thought Independent Lens was too sparse in responding to the three substantive challenges that were offered by Stranahan and Breitbart. Stranahan, for example, was not alone in feeling that the Panthers’ communist ideology got short-shrift in the film. Peter Keough, writing in the Boston Globe, gave high marks to the film and producer Stanley Nelson, but said he “could have included more about such questionable tactics as their embrace of Maoism, which probably didn’t help their image much with the average American.”

Similarly, some reviewers felt it was surprising that activist Angela Davis, one of the most high-profile women of that period—a leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1960s who also had close relations with the Panthers—was not mentioned in the film, nor was the star-studded, Black Panther fund-raising party at conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein’s New York City apartment that was famously skewered as “Radical Chic” as reported on in New York Magazine by Tom Wolfe.

A bit more on the circumstances of the killing of Officer John Frey would also have been helpful and, as Stranahan also points out, some mention of Cleaver’s admission, in his best-selling book, that “I arrived at the conclusion that, as a matter of principle, it was of paramount importance for me to have an antagonistic, ruthless attitude towards white women.”

I’m not a producer but my outsider sense is that a 113-minute film is a long one and a little time could have, or might have, been found for at least more of a mention of these points, all of which will strike some kind of remembrance or chord about this controversial yet very important and extremely prominent group at a critical time in our recent history.

On balance, though, as a viewer, I was grateful for this film. I thought it was powerful, skillfully done, a real public service and a history, as Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, of “an organization that stubbornly resists being pigeonholed. The Black Panther Party emerges from this documentary with its significance enhanced but some of its tactics questioned.”

Posted on Feb. 23, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

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