“We were making history, and it wasn’t nice and clean,” former Black Panther member Ericka Huggins says at the beginning of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”
She’s talking about the revolutionary group’s beginnings in Oakland, Calif., but it could just as easily be the mantra for writer/director/producer Stanley Nelson Jr. His latest documentary bravely dives into a complex subject that retains conflicting feelings nearly half a century later, and the result is a nuanced and informative portrait that provides a strong connection with current times.
Nelson could have accomplished that connection the easy way, by choosing a side and bombarding the viewer with obvious ties to Black Lives Matter and other current events. Instead, the filmmaker takes the more difficult route, inviting all sides to weigh in on past times and letting audiences provide their own ties to the lingering racial divide in America.
Nelson interviews activists, historians, police and even an FBI agent — all allowed a platform without judgment. The resulting mosaic represents no one viewpoint more than the other. Many of the people interviewed may be angry that the entire documentary doesn’t bolster their perspective of events. But the arms-length approach makes the film less vulnerable to criticism from wider audiences. To watch “Vanguard of the Revolution” is to confront your own prejudices.
Impeccably researched with a trove of photos and video, the film spends the bulk of its two hours on the movement’s beginnings, ably explaining the societal issues that acted as a catalyst for the Black Panther party and the “swagger” that made the Panthers so attractive for disenfranchised young people.
Party leaders Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others are presented as individuals, with clear differences and weaknesses that separate each from their legends. (The tumultuous final years of the late Newton and Cleaver, while fascinating, had little to do with the Panther movement and are wisely downplayed.)
The film comes to a close with three high-profile events: the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, a Chicago shootout between Panthers and police in 1969 and Bobby Seale’s run for Oakland mayor in 1973.
Those events are the most gripping and moving in a documentary that occasionally feels detached to a fault. Nelson’s decision to keep a professional distance sacrifices some of the emotional potential. Seale’s lack of participation is also a loss, especially in the first and last parts of the film.
But there’s no criticizing Nelson for his effort. This was clearly a passion project, where the filmmaker cared enough about the film’s integrity to leave his own opinions behind.
(At the Tivoli.)
‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’
Not rated. Time: 1:53.