Consider it payback time. That’s the quickest way to get a handle on Panther, a riveting two hours of revisionism that’s fired up to show us what really went down when the Black Panther Party rolled out in Oakland, Calif., during the late 1960s. Director Mario Van Peebles and his father, Melvin, who adapted the script from his just-published novel, know that white media power still paints the Panthers as armed black devils. The elder Van Peebles, who revolutionized black cinema with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971, has joined with his son to fight that power. Their film commendably accentuates the positives – from Panther breakfast programs to housing, health and employment agendas. What isn’t commendable is minimizing the negatives – from drug dealing to homicide – that led to the party’s disintegration.
Panther uses propaganda to fight propaganda. It’s a film of selective truth. The script revolves around a fictional character named Judge (Kadeem Hardison). He’s a Vietnam vet who gets swept into the movement to interact with Panther leaders Huey Newton (Marcus Chong) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance), as well as racist cops and FBI agents out to turn Judge into Judas. Though strongly played by Hardison, formerly of TV’s A Different World, Judge is a melodramatic contrivance geared to give Panther an action-flick kick and an Everyman to root for.
Why would the film cheat on the potent facts to do the trite thing? Wake up. It’s taken Van Peebles and son years to scrape up the meager budget: $9.5 million, compared with $35 million for the average Hollywood film. If Panther tanks, you can forget bringing more black history to the screen. Mario mined box-office gold with New Jack City, a kick-ass thriller about a crack kingpin, and crashed with Posse, a provocative foray into the role of black cowboys in the Old West. Lesson learned: Give them heroes to cheer, caricature enemies, jack up the jolts, simplify the issues, inflame emotions, spark controversy and hope some of the truth seeps through.
Some of it does. Panther begins powerfully with a specific incident. A car hits and kills a young black boy riding his bike through an intersection in Oakland. When the community protests the lack of a traffic light, the police move in and start busting heads. A need is seen for a group that will watchdog the police and rouse the people to action in self-defense.
These early scenes crackle with purpose as young members of the community – mostly teens and twentysome-things – band together as Panthers. The membership includes women, represented here by Alma, fiercely played by rap star Nefertiti, a sister who demands to do more than cook and rub her man’s tired feet. The uniforms and drill sessions give the Panthers the look of soldiers. Bearing arms is a legal right until a threatened government changes the law. Still, chapters spring up nationwide, turning the Panthers into a scare symbol and prompting FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to label them public enemy No. 1.
Chong – son of comic Tommy – and Vance bring Newton and Seale to vivid life, and Anthony Griffith is hypnotic as Eldridge Cleaver, the reporter who becomes the Panther minister of information and leads the cathartic group chant of “Fuck Ronald Reagan.”
Panther ducks the issue of what divided these leaders and soured their dreams, opting for heat instead of light. The film turns the white Establishment into cardboard demons and the Panther core into demigods. It also buys into the hotly contested theory that Hoover extended his Panther hate campaign to a bargain with the mob to flood black communities with drugs as a final solution similar to Hitler’s for the Jews. In an attempt to counteract racist lies, Panther stoops to its own racial stereotyping – satisfying for the short term perhaps, but a poor answer for the new generation the Van Peebles team so urgently wants to reach. Though the whole truth may be a tall order for any movie, it’s still a necessary first step if you want to fight the power.