April 20, 2017
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The Black Panther Filmography
by Doniphan Blair
Over twenty armed Panthers, including some juveniles, took over the California Legislature briefly in May 1967. photo: courtesy The Sacramento Bee
THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY FOR
Self-Defense rose like a phoenix out of West Oakland almost fifty years ago, inspiring a generation of African-Americans and young people of all colors around the nation and the world—indeed, the leading Panthers became the Che Guevaras of the United States—yet notably few major films or documentaries have been made about them.
Although this sorry state is about to change, with the September release of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” by veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson, the absence of an extensive Panther filmography (see actual list at bottom) is even odder if you consider the Panthers’ relevance to today’s catastrophes of murderous police, prideful young men and ongoing poverty and racism, or that they were also media darlings, beloved by many with inner sanctum access.
While the Panthers eventually initiated social programs, like free clinics and children’s breakfasts, their rocketship rise resulted from their daring activism, like “police monitoring,” and their cinematic media coups, like what happened on May 2nd, 1967, headlined by the Associate Press as “California Legislature is Stunned by Invasion of Armed Black Panthers[!]”
“It was a noon hour session of the assembly that a dozen armed youths—members of the ‘Black Panther Party’—succeeded in penetrating briefly before they were ushered out and several of the loaded rifles, pistols and shotguns were taken away by two state troopers in a mild struggle,” reported the AP in an article carried worldwide.
As usual, reports differ. “As soon as the group pulled into a service station, the police surrounded them,” is the version in “Black Against Empire” (2013), a well-respected University of California book by professors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, of UCLA and UC Berkeley, respectively. "With cameramen capturing the scene for national TV, the police then searched and arrested the remainder of the group on what appeared to be make shift charges… Nineteen adults and five juveniles were arrested,” including Eldridge Cleaver, later a Panther leader, in attendance at that time as a reporter.
Armed Panthers in the hallways of the California legislature, during the '67 Capitol Takeover. photo: courtesy Sacramento Bee
AP was correct, however, in that “No guns were fired at any time, and the armed men took care while in the Capitol not to overtly threaten anyone with the guns. They remained silent except for the spokesman, [Panther Chairman] Bobby Seale of Oakland. He said they appeared to defend their constitutional right to bear arms, criticize the ‘racist Oakland police’ and oppose a bill outlawing the carrying of loaded weapons in public.”
“No one could remember anything like it happening before,” concluded the AP report, dryly, but if that wasn’t big screen, political theater enough for you (see the small screen version
), there’s more.
As the Panthers were marching away from the Capitol building—some with weapons aloft, many in their trademark haute-revolutionary couture of black berets, leather jackets and boots—which made for very evocative, revolutionary imagery, they happened to pass a press conference featuring a flock of school children and another “political actor” of immense proportions, Ronald Reagan, the ex-movie star and recently-elected governor. He fled in fear, according to “Black Against Empire”.
“Asked for his reaction [afterwards], the governor said that ‘Americans don’t go around carrying guns with the idea they are using them to influence other Americans” (AP). “Who ever approved of this demonstration must be out of their mind,” Reagan added, in a clip from Nelson’s “Panthers”, which covered the Capital Takeover, but “he agreed with the group’s contention that they have the right to bear arms[!]” (AP).
Sure, the Sandinistas topped the Panthers 11 years later when they seized Nicaragua’s Congress and almost 1,000 people, and ransomed them for $500,000, 59 political prisoners and safe passage out of the country, but the Panther action was purer media spectacle, given the weapons, performance, iconography and journalist presence were balanced and peaceful enough to super-charge the positive communication of their message.
“We were using them to sell newspapers,” notes a San Francisco Chronicle journalist in Nelson’s “Panthers”, “but they were also using us!” And not only newspapers. Indeed, they were employing advanced cultural analysis tailored to California, one of the most elevated media and celebrity cultures ever.
Indeed, the Capitol Takeover debuted the Panthers internationally as important revolutionaries, living in the heart of the beast, Oakland, and set the tone for the summer of ’67, which was hot, with over 100 uprising across the United States, often in reaction to police violence.
Huey P. Newton's iconic portrait, art directed by Eldridge Cleaver, established him as the Panthers' Minister of Defense, in image as well as fact. photo: E. Cleaver
Ironically, the author of the Capital Takeover, Huey P. Newton, who co-founded the Panthers with Bobby Seale eight months earlier, when they were college students (24 and 29, respectively), and became its Minister of Defense, was not in attendance—probably at home, catching up on his reading, of which he had a lot, since he was functionally illiterate until 18. Actually, keeping Newton home was a good idea, given he could get aggressive and reckless in confrontational situations.
Although they borrowed their name and logo from a civil rights group in Alabama, Newton and Seale jointly developed their striking style—later, Emory Douglas, an artist who became their Minister of Culture, would create great graphics for their posters and newspaper—and their politics. Their ten point program called for freedom, full employment, exemption of black men from military service, an end to police brutality and, in the final word of Point 10, “peace.”
The brains behind the party was acknowledged to be Newton. A pretty boy and the youngest of four brothers—the “baby” of the family, Newton’s oldest brothers were of the street but his immediate elder, Melvin, was bookish and became a sociology professor who taught in Oakland. The family had moved there from Louisiana to reap the benefit of the shipping and manufacturing boom but it flatlined after World War II, impoverishing them and much of the black community.
Expelled from almost every high school in Oakland, often for fighting but also because nothing taught there interested him, Newton was first arrested for vandalism and gun possession and later incarcerated for six months for stabbing a man with a steak knife. "In self-defense," he said.
When he finally taught himself to read, however, he was soon devouring Dostoevsky, Plato and California Law at Merritt Community College (previously in North Oakland, now East Oakland hills) and SF State, notably the Fish and Game statutes covering the “open carry” of guns, under law professor Edwin Meese, eventually President Reagan’s Attorney General.
Following his readings and the example of the Community Alert Patrols in Watts, a Los Angeles ghetto, Newton, Seale and “L’il Bobby" Hutton, their first recruit and 16 at the time, started following Oakland cops at a legal distance, monitoring their activities for any misconduct and maintaining law books and weapons at the ready.
With their propensity for political pageantry, the Panthers attracted fine art photographers, including Pirkle Jones. photo: P. Jones
Although Newton would often go toe-to-toe with officers, brandishing insults, legal citings and loaded shotguns, Police Monitoring was essentially a hybrid of the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X: Be law abiding but enforce the law by any means necessary. It was also a normative expression of the male myth of the West, in which they had been steeped by television since childhood: Arm yourself, ride in and defend your community.
The Panthers practiced Police Monitoring, which can be replicated today more MLK-style with cell phone cameras, for almost eight months—no weapons fired! In the meantime, they graduated to more epic performances, like their fully-armed and highly-disciplined demonstrations at Oakland’s Alameda County Court House or their escorting of Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, from the San Francisco airport to her lodgings.
This lasted until late-1967, when the Mulford Act repealing Open Carry was passed overwhelmingly by the California Legislature. Despite the NRA's and many Californians' obsession with arm bearing rights, they denied it to black revolutionaries, although Open Carry continues in other states like Texas, where it is practiced today by the New Black Panther Party.
Ironically, the documentary most recommended to me by ex-Panthers or Panther watchers is Swedish, “
Black Power Mixtape: 1967-75
” (2011), and does not cover the Capitol Takeover. Co-produced by Danny Glover, the Hollywood actor/San Francisco activist, and scored by Questlove, of the Tonight Show band, the Roots, it was directed by Göran Olsson, who discovered a treasure trove of footage in the basement of a Swedish television station.
The intrepid Swedish filmmakers were the first to interview in prison Angela Davis, the prodigious intellectual, who studied socialist theory in Europe and became a UCLA professor at age 25, in 1969, but was arrested for allegedly supplying weapons to radicals. That was in the 1970 Marin County Court Takeover Incident when her body guard, the 17 year-old Jonathan Jackson, made a daring attempt to free his brother, George, an imprisoned radical and author with whom Davis had become romantically involved, resulting in four deaths, including Jonathan and the presiding judge. Although all three guns involved were registered to Davis, she was acquitted; "The state only proved she was in love with Jackson," noted one juror.
The Swedes spent a lot of time with the charismatic, Southern civil rights leader, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Touré), who coined the phrase “black power” and "institutional racism," became a vocal black nationalist critical of Panther collaboration with whites, and eventually moved to West Africa. In a very funny bit, Carmichael takes over their interview with his mother on the harsh reality of being black in the 1960s South, which the Swedes also documented as they roadtripped through America.
“Mixtape” well-contextualizes the ‘60s with contemporary thoughts from Professor Davis, Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole and the hardworking filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, among others, but it stands out for its archival footage, including of Seale, Newton and Cleaver, who joined the nascent party shortly after getting out of prison for rape, when he witnessed a fully-armed Newton shouting down an Oakland cop.
Bobby Seale (lft) and Huey P. Newton, best friends and founders of the Black Panthers, in front of their West Oakland HQ,1967. photo: courtesy Panthers
Already a respected journalist, publishing from prison for the radical Ramparts Magazine (based in Menlo Park, in today’s Silicon Valley), Cleaver was appointed Minister of Information and soon married Kathleen Neal, the brilliant and beautiful, internationally-raised daughter of a light-skinned black American diplomat. She became the first woman on the Panthers’ Central Committee and, later, a law professor, including at Yale.
A year later, Cleaver became famous for “Soul on Ice”, an essay collection considered one of the top ten books of 1968 by a NY Times reviewer, and displaced Newton as the Panther’s leading intellectual. Their rivalry would continue with Cleaver the more radical black nationalist as well as brutally insightful author—one of his more provocative essays points out that hot, interracial sex was inherent to slavery, since masters inevitably lust after “primitive” slaves and vice versa—until he quit the party and became a born-again Christian, a clothing designer and a Republican!
Also an outspoken thinker, Bobby Seale was bound and gagged for his thoughtful outbursts by the notorious “Hanging Judge” Hoffman at the 1968 "Chicago Eight" trail, to which he was dragged for no real reason except the cops couldn’t lay their hands on Cleaver—called "Chicago Seven" after his case was split off into a separate trial. Seale served three years for contempt of court.
“What I believed in was how we can get greater community control and community input into the institutions that affect our lives,” Seale states in “Mixtape”. “The very philosophy and slogan that we are spouting is ‘All Power to All the People,’ whether you are white, black, blue, red, green, yellow or polkadot!”
“Black racism is just as bad and dangerous as white racism,” he continued, to some dissent, at the 1969 anti-fascism conference the Panthers hosted in West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, among other locations, according to “Black Against Empire”. Still, Seale-style multiculturalism was not the primary Panther perspective and when he published his 1970 book on the Panthers, he titled it, tellingly, “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton”.
Alas, “Mixtape” itself is in black and white, and not that millennial-friendly, while, in the full-color, narrative feature department, there is only one film devoted to the subject. “
” (1995) was directed by Melvin Van Peebles’s son, Mario, a well known film and television actor who is also an accomplished director (starting with “New Jack City”, 1991), from his father’s screenplay, based on his novel of the same name.
Melvin Van Peebles starred in 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,' the 1971 pioneer blaxploitation film, which was both a massive hit and radical, cinematically as well as politically. photo: courtesy the Van Peebleses
A versatile old-hand at revolutionary romance as well as cinema, Melvin wrote and directed “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” (1968), which is in French and is considered a French New Wave film(!). Then he directed “Watermelon Man” (1970), an American comedy, inspired by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, about a white racist who wakes up one day to find he has become black.
Shortly thereafter, he created almost singlehandedly—wrote, directed, produced, starred AND scored—the 1971 hit, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” which, despite its playful name and secondary plots, concerns a black man’s struggle with white repression.
Ironically, Melvin had a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures but because of its anti-authoritarian story the suits refused to back “Sweetback”. Imagine their chagrin when, after producing it himself, with a $50,000 finishing loan from Bill Cosby, it box-officed $15 million, 100 times its budget and a sizable fortune at the time!
Considered the first blaxploitation film, “Sweetback” was surprisingly innovative, with fast montages and jump cuts, a la New Wave, and Melvin doing his own stunts, including, according to rumors, un-simulated sex. Newton loved “Sweetback”, devoted an entire issue of the Panther paper to it and made it required Panther viewing, along with, tellingly, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” (1972). He also liked Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" (1970).
The highest-grossing blaxploitation film of the day, “The Mack” (1973), directed by Michael Campus and starring Richard Pryor, was filmed in West Oakland, if just barely, since Newton started to assume “Godfather” pretensions himself and ordered his coterie of Panthers to throw bottles, interrupt production and extort “contributions.” The Van Peebleses’s “Panther” was also shot in West Oakland in 1994, but no problem, since Newton had died five years earlier. Alas, it was not so highly acclaimed.
Although the Van Peebleses’s “Panther” opens with a moving documentary montage, enjoys good acting from Marcus Chong as Newton, Anthony Griffith as Cleaver, and others (including a young Chris Rock, comedian Dick Gregory and rapper Kool Moe D) and adequately compresses some of the story, it collapses into conspiracy theory, blaming the Panthers' demise and the drugs flooding into Oakland entirely on the FBI. (Ironically, the black agent handling that operation was played by Roger Guenveur Smith, who began performing his one-man play about Newton shortly thereafter, see below.)
The vast majority of rank and file Panthers were dedicated and disciplined activists but, with no real vetting, they included some criminal types and FBI plants. photo: courtesy the Panthers
To be sure, the cops severely harassed many—and murdered a few—Panthers in Oakland, which was not just the poorest city of the “Seven Beautiful Sisters by the Bay,” making it an automatic hub for drugs, prostitution and bad cops, but a severely corrupt one. In fact, the mayor from 1961 to 1966, John Houlihan, was an expert both on urban issues AND embezzling. Convicted for stealing $200,000 from a widow and a Catholic order, he served two years in the minimum-security prison at Vacaville.
More importantly, J. Edgar Hoover considered the Panthers the country’s greatest threat and unleashed against them the full fury of his notorious Counter Intelligence Program (CoIntelPro), fully 240 out of 245 campaigns to "infiltrate, misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” them. In fact, the FBI did much more, notably egging local police into murderous attacks, including the Chicago police's cold-blooded 1969 massacre of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Panther whom Hoover feared might be the “black messiah,” and his body guard Mark Clark. Eventually, almost two dozen Panthers were killed, either under obvious malfeasance or very dubious circumstances.
Ironically, infiltrating the Panthers was incredibly easy after they started signing up recruits by the hundreds—ultimately, there were two to five thousand Panthers nation-wide (again, estimates vary), given their minimal vetting and that the late ‘60s was a literal freak show. Take “Crazy Tom” Mosher who “became the Black Panthers' best white buddy,” according to lefty Bay Area journalist Steve Weissman (see
Reader Supported News
Mosher was “a constant chameleon, always shifting roles… [whose] passion for guns and explosives… made him the perfect provocateur. His madness drove him to live on the edge, continuously courting danger, while working for the FBI.”
Meanwhile, a black informer diagrammed Hampton’s house for easy police access and Richard Aoki, a West Oaklander, who grew up in a Japanese interment camp, joined the Panthers early (one of its few non-black members) and supplied some of their first weapons, is now considered by many, including the lefty Truth-Out.org (see
), to have been a FBI informant.
But the Panthers weren't political naives. They must have expected something like this after they moved from Police Monitoring and media-savvy demonstrations to calls for violent revolution, often loudly in enumerable public protests, which often featured the chant “Off the Pig!”—not to mention engaging in actual attacks on police.
There was a palpable joie de vivre to early Panther gatherings and press conferences. photo: courtesy the Panthers
Indeed, Newton, Cleaver and other Panther leaders either acquiesced to or themselves indulged in risky behavior or drugs, which were more likely brought into the community by black entrepreneurs like Charles Cosby, who became the lover of Griselda Blanco, queen of the Miami-Colombian mob, and East Oakland’s crack king (see “Cocaine Cowboys 2”, 2008).
Despite the well-documented conspiracies against them, the Panthers walked the razor’s edge between determined activism, revolutionary action and political theater for a few years in Oakland and longer elsewhere. Admittedly, they often exercised undemocratic force for local political gain, waiving weapons at committee meetings or packing them with Panthers, but that was considered understandable, even standard Chicago-style politics, and not wellknown beyond the Oakland flats.
The Panthers were invited to Hollywood and New York, as well as the Oakland hills and San Francisco, where they befriended media makers and liberals, from East Bay Congressman Ron Dellums to Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Leonard Bernstein, the latter evisceratingly parodied in Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" (1970), often doing presentations in their trademark style. While one Panther spoke, the others would stand at attention, “looking like they were about to kill someone, which the media types ate up,” notes an ex-Panther in Nelson’s “Panthers”.
Playful and smart as well as tough and steely, Newton led the way. His closest friend came to be Bert Schneider, son of a Columbia Pictures president and himself a versatile producer of fluff, “The Monkees” (TV, 1966-8), indies, “Easy Rider” (1969), and Oscar-winners, the Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” (1974). Schneider contributed hundreds of thousands to the Panthers, allowing them to graduate from their first income source, hawking Mao’s “Little Red Book” bought in Chinatown at a capitalist profit to college kids.
Sure, some street hustle/white guilt or top/bottom bromance may have been involved but the Newton-Schneider affection was genuine, driven by mutual enjoyment and philosophical proclivities. “As Daniel Ellsberg [of 'Pentagon Papers' fame] recently told me: 'Bert absolutely loved Huey. [He] told me once, ‘Huey’s the smartest man I ever met,’” wrote journalist Kate Coleman, a longtime Panther watcher, in Salon Magazine (6/9/2012).
Newton kicking it with his best Hollywood bud, Bert Schneider, a versatile producer who financed the Panthers. photo: courtesy the Panthers
When Newton was released from San Quentin prison, where he had been facing the death penalty for the 1967 murder of an Oakland policeman—he was eventually acquitted, albeit after three trials, suggesting a black radical could get a fair hearing, at least in California—Schneider was there, in a white limousine, from which Newton waved back at the prison.
Schneider even engaged in some radical actions, helping Newton flee the country after he jumped bail on a second set of murder charges in 1974, an adventure which also turned cinematic, if not comic. When the first boat for Cuba sank, Schneider hired another; when the rowboat going ashore also sank, Newton, who couldn’t swim (as is the case with many blacks raised far from pools or ponds), was saved by his first wife, Gwen Fontaine.
Unfortunately, instead of expanding the sophisticated balance between violence and the threat of violence conveyed artistically, which Newton pioneered with Police Monitoring, by going to Paris with Schneider to study with Situationalists, say, or sitting down with him to pen a screenplay, when he returned to Oakland from San Quentin in 1970, he turned towards gangsterism. At this point in the story, Nelson’s “Panthers” cuts to an ex-Panther remarking caustically: “We created a cult of personality around a fucking maniac!”
But, again, what precisely could be expected? As America’s best-known “political prisoner,” who spent months in solitary; with the Left mobilizing for years a very vocal “Free Huey” campaign, with the hero’s welcome he enjoyed after Schneider dropped him off in Oakland—he hopped on a car, stripped to the waist (he was prison ripped) and spoke to the adoring, adulating crowd—not to forget CoIntelPro, it was enough to addle any man’s moral or mental compass.
The Panthers’ leadership's descent into hubris has been covered by many, from the ex-radical, white journalist Coleman to the more establishment black journalist Hugh Pearson, who wrote “Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America” (1994) and called Newton a “virtual monster,” and the more sympathetic professors of “Black Against Empire”.
Also exhibiting star power was Kathleen Cleaver, a diplomat's daughter, the first female on the Panthers Central Committee, Eldridge's wife (1967-87) and a law professor today. photo: courtesy the Panthers
“After the party unraveled [in late ’71], Newton was governed by despair, untreated bipolar disorder, and clinical depression,” the professors write, and "Newton became severely addicted to cocaine." They add tentatively: “Accusations abound about Newton’s alleged criminal activities… [but] few of the accusations have been verified: Newton eventually defeated every one of the major criminal charges in court.”
Unfortunately, to fully understand the Panther phenomena and the immensity of their achievements, their Greek tragedy turn must be examined, as Stanley Nelson suggests in the impressive opening of “
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
”. Instead of high political drama, like the start of the Van Peebleses’s “Panther”, he has a long, lush animated telling of the African parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”. As off-topic as this may seem, it is essential: there are many types of elephants, or Panthers, as it were, as well as elephants-in-the-room.
A seasoned documentarian, Nelson took awards for his debut film, about the black entrepreneur and beautician Madam C.J. Walker (1989), worked his way up through PBS, largely for Bill Moyers with pieces like “Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind” (2000), won a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), and tackled another tricky Bay Area story, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple“ (2006).
When Nelson’s child-friendly intro concludes, and he cuts to a close-focus shot of a handsome, older woman, obviously once a very striking Panther sister, who turns out to be the sonorous narrator of the Elephant Parable, we know we are in the hands of a master filmmaker, one finally able to portray the Panthers cinematically. Through additional close-focus interviews and excellent archival footage, mostly color, we learn of the Panthers’ innovative activism, from free breakfasts and clothing depots to health clinics testing for sickle-cell anemia, some of which were adopted by local governments or nonprofits and continue today.
“Early in the development phase of this project, I was apprehensive about approaching former Black Panther Party members, because the Party had so often been misportrayed by popular media,” Nelson is quoted in the festival program of Sundance, where his film premiered in January 2015. “I had a great fear of being turned down and not having any former Party members be part of the film.” Obviously, they acquiesced but the project took seven years, “allowing me to assess, adapt, and keep moving forward.”
A Panther reunion, 2006, at Oakland's court house, featuring a 'Free Huey' banner. photo: courtesy the Panthers
Some of that adaptation was undoubtedly tough, particularly when Nelson reached the peak of the Panther’s prodigious ascent and entered their vertiginous downturn, which was personal and moral as well as political. The saddest moment for many Panthers nationwide was when Newton cut back or cancelled their organizations and requested they move to Oakland—hard for those with jobs or families—and ship any equipment of value, like printing presses, to mobilize for Bobby Seale’s 1972 mayoral campaign.
Despite some accusations of violence, Seale could make a plausible run for Oakland mayor since he had served in the Air Force, was always the cooler head, had backed away from violence and fully supported white participation. In point of fact, Panther rallies were mostly white, filled with kids from the Berkeley Free Speech movement or the San Francisco hippie scene, who could afford to flirt with violent revolution.
More middleclass blacks, meanwhile, feared obvious repercussions from the cops but also to the California zeitgeist in general. Despite police and institutional racism, California was notably liberal under Governor Pat Brown (1959-67, father of current governor Jerry Brown) and rich, with world-class job opportunities and social services, which, despite vast diminishment in its ghettos, were still significantly better than in Harlem or Chicago, let alone Louisiana. Moreover, they disapproved of the Panther’s language and "60's-style sex and drug use, not to mention absence from church, a mainstay of the black community.
“One day myself and two of my friends were getting ready to go down to the Fillmore [to join] the Panther party,” recalled Rick Moss, director of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, in our recent phone conversation.
When the mother of one of his friends asked where they were going, “Someone let the cat out of the bag and she said, ‘No, I DON’T think so! I know your mother, and your mother, and I am getting ready to call.’ We never get off the block—that was it. But [the party] was certainly very attractive, exciting.”
Seale lost to John Reading, the popular Oakland mayor who followed the corrupt Houlihan, but he won some 40% of the vote, conceded defeat graciously and earned enough political capital to double-down on a more socially-integrated Panther Party, paving the way for Oakland's first black mayor, four years later.
Buffeted between his own political performances, '60s Hollywood and a world-wide campaign to free him from prison, as well as getting buff there, is it any wonder Newton came to see himself as larger than life? photo: courtesy the H.P. Newton estate
Indeed, when Jerry Brown took the governor’s office back from Reagan and his right-wing regime in 1975, for his first set of terms (age 37, driving a beatup car, dating Linda Ronstadt), and Circuit Judge Lionel J. Wilson became Oakland’s first African-American mayor two years later, with support from (and recompense to) the Panthers, there was a period of improvement in Oakland and rampant liberalism across Northern California.
Angela Davis, who endured much in the upheaval, was a close associate, if not a member, of the Panthers (despite their sometimes pronounced misogyny) and spoke at many of their rallies, made the transition with aplomb. She began teaching social history, some of which she witnessed, to clueless white kids at the SF Art Institute, where this author enjoyed her abundant learning and spectacular philosophical equanimity.
But not Newton. By the time he returned from Cuba in 1977—a complex story Nelson’s “Panthers” glosses—he stood accused, not just by the courts and a few investigative reporters but many Oaklanders, of cold-blooded murder.
Again, reports differ. Some allege Newton ordered the 1974 killing of the Panthers’ white bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, who was a friend of Cleaver and had worked at Ramparts Magazine, since she was about to expose “accounting irregularities.” More widely-rumored was that he himself killed a teenage prostitute, Kathleen Smith, after she called him “Baby,” a childhood nickname he despised.
There were also a number of internecine Panthers' killings, like of Fred Bennett, accused of being an informant and “eliminated” at a guerrilla training camp in the Santa Cruz mountains with body disposal by an actual informant, “Crazy” Tom Mosher.
Newton denied all charges, blamed CoIntelPro and made bail and lawyered up with the help of Schneider. A skilled multitasker, he also returned to school and earned a masters and then a PhD in 1980 from UC Santa Cruz. His dissertation, “War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America”, needed little research other than his own memories and his FBI file, which he obtained through the 1967 Freedom of Information Act.
“The party in Oakland operated a virtual vice ring out of Newton's favorite nighttime haunt, the Lamp Post bar [on Telegraph Avenue],” writes Coleman in the
(6/22/2003). “The Fox-Oakland theater was torched two times in 1973, its owner told me, after the owner refused to hire a quota of Panthers and to pay for protection.”
Self-proclaimedly shy, Newton courted the press assiduously during his rollercoaster career. photo: courtesy AP
“There were, of course, many serious and dedicated Black Panthers around the country,” she adds, “people who had no idea that Newton operated a parallel organization devoted to crime… Early on, Panthers everywhere collected money for sickle-cell anemia research. Newton later admitted that effort was a con.”
“(T)he Panthers under Newton conducted a reign of terror, punishing rank-and-file females for even minor ‘infractions’ by turning them out as prostitutes. Newton led an extortion racket against Oakland's bars, nightclubs, pimps and dope dealers” until one affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family, the political prison group started by George Jackson, which also went gangster, killed him in 1989, a few blocks from the Panthers’ first headquarters in West Oakland.
"I love Huey, but Huey used to do some crazy stuff," acknowledged Seale, at a 2002 Panther Conference held in Washington, DC, according to a plausible
article in Front Page Mag
(4/23/2002), published by David Horowitz, a Panther "favorite white buddy" turned conservative.
“Seale allows that things were getting out of hand in the Party by the mid ’70s,” the article continues, dryly, especially since Seale was expelled and abused by Newton in '74. “‘I wanted to stop the Black Panther Party,’ he said. ’I had stumbled on Huey Newton abusing cocaine at the time viciously. I stumbled on him trying to take over the drug trade operation in Oakland… I was very, very pissed… If I stayed around, I probably would have killed Huey myself.’"
Newton was acquitted of all charges save some illicit fund use, for which he did a few months, but his crimes were wellknown locally. Indeed, in West Oakland, there is no monument, mural or even pro-Panther graffiti, although there are Panthers on murals around town, in Berkeley, and a big one in LA. In North Oakland, there is a small plaque honoring a stoplight installed due to Panther efforts.
West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, where the Panthers held many rallies, is not now known as L’il Bobby Hutton Park, as it was back in the day to honor their first casualty—shot in the back at 18 while surrendering to Oakland police after the massive '68 shootout instigated by Cleaver.
After his arrest in that fiasco, Cleaver jumped bail, traveled the world as a premier revolutionary and started the Panther Embassy in Algeria, where he was visited by fugitive Timothy Leary, who was aided in his daring California prison break by the Panthers and returned the liberation favor by dosing many with LSD, another story of cinematic proportion.
The Panthers' powerful logo has not appeared in West Oakland graffiti for decades. image: courtesy the Panthers
“You say nothing to them! You take nothing from them!” Eugene Blacknell, a funk guitarist and band leader, told his 13 year-old, child prodigy son, Gino, when Newton and his entourage dropped by the club where they were gigging. “I had seen them on TV,” Gino told me, “they were celebrities.”
“I remember this elderly black woman telling me, ‘You all need to be careful or you will get us all killed,’” recalled Flores Forbes (2006, NPR), a Panther enforcer who came quite clean in his autobiography, “Will You Die with Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party” (2006), even about his attempted hit on a prosecution witness against Newton.
“In the end, there was a lot of good things that came out of [the Panthers],” reflected Museum Director Moss, “but the fact that there is not a whole lot of official recognition of the party [in Oakland] underlies that lingering trauma, the fear of raising the devil, so to speak.”
Oakland has no permanent Panther display, save the Oakland Museum's rattan throne-chair used by Newton in his iconic portrait, gun in one hand, a spear in the other (art directed by Cleaver), and a small display of photos and Panther papers at the African American Museum, although there will be a number of events and displays and a big museum show for the Panthers’ 50th anniversary in 2016.
“We never really mounted a full exhibition,” explained Moss. “If I did a show, I would want to have a more thorough approach than the spit and swagger that is usually shown, [which] seems to be more about the romance and a nostalgic look back at the ‘60s.”
Another reason was cost. “The respected Oakland conceptual artist Mildred Howard thought her Oakland Art Museum installation celebrating ethnic diversity several years ago was a tribute to the Black Panthers,” wrote Coleman in 2000,
. “’Then [party chief of staff] David Hilliard showed up,’ she told me, ‘and he hits me up for money… really leaned on me, said he was going to get money from the Museum as well. What arrogance.’ In that case, Hilliard failed.”
While the Panthers remain highly regarded elsewhere—especially in France, where they are Oakland's best-known figures after Gertrude Stein, and there is a small New Black Panther Party, which “old” Panthers disavow, founded in Dallas in 1989 and active across the South, especially after the Ferguson tragedy—Oakland appears unable to accept its most-famous native sons without adequate healing and inventory, if not by law, than by literature, film or theater.
Roger Guenveur Smith played Huey P. Newton brilliantly in over 600 performances world-wide. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
The only candidate for such Shakespearian psychological investigation I have seen is “A Huey P. Newton Story”, originally a one-man play by Roger Guenveur Smith in 1996.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, who also has a PhD in history, Smith developed a signature style of improvised one-man shows, although he has also acted in many Hollywood and Spike Lee films. Indeed, he and Lee turned “A Huey P. Newton Story” into an equally brilliant movie in 2001 (see almost complete version
Relying entirely on Newton’s words, from his very literary autobiography, “Revolutionary Suicide” (1973), his poetry, “To Die for the People” (1972, edited by Toni Morrison), and his cassette recordings, provided by his brother Melvin, Smith utterly inhabited Newton in over 600 improvised performances worldwide and then the film, from his whipsmart punning to his fiendish drugging, which Smith symbolized by chainsmoking—ending the performance with two lit cigarettes, one in each hand (for more Smith, see
Although Smith includes hints, like having Newton say, “They should have left me to die in San Quentin,” he leaves it to viewers to tease out what Newton himself would not cop to, let alone explain, except in late-night confessions to Schneider or a crack buddy. Even in Oakland, many still see Newton as a CoIntelPro martyr while “Black Against Empire” features an armed-and-bandoliered Newton rather than a less controversial figure on its cover.
Of course, the patriarchal stance of armed self-defense is inspiring and a palliative, especially for men after years of denigration, oppression and attack. But is armed resistance practical if the biggest thug around is the police and you are not a Sandinista fighting an all-out-war against an utterly corrupt government? In the media—and now the Internet and handheld—age, doesn’t strong MLK-style non-violence make better communication while gun use can easily backfire?
Today’s tough guys in Oakland and elsewhere eschew the Panther’s black leather jackets, berets and afros—indeed, no one uses that striking style anymore—for the belt-less, pants-around-the-knees look of prison culture, following the outsider technique of flipping negatives to make them positives. Nor do they emulate the Panthers' discipline or theoretical thinking, although they do carry on with their right to bear arms.
Panther women protesting in Washington DC the Vietnam War, which caused a much higher percentage of casualties among blacks, 1969. photo: Bruno Barbey
“I think gangster rap very much grows out of the image the Black Panther Party created of defiant young men,” reporter Pearson said in a '95 CSpan interview, “particularly the image of Huey on the throne, a gun one hand, a spear in another.”
“[S]tatistics showing a spike in drive-by shooting deaths and gang warfare that took place in Oakland in the decade following the Panthers' demise,” claims Coleman. “The Black Panther Party had so fetishized the gun as part of its mystique that young men in the ghetto felt incomplete without one.”
Deaths are down from the Crack '80s but gun culture remains virulent, killing far more young black men than out-of-control police, even after world-famous rapper Tupak Shakur, the son of an East Coast Panther, who grew up in Marin County and romanticized gun culture with his “Thug Life”-themed songs and tattoos, died from it in Las Vegas in 1996.
Eldridge Cleaver claimed Shakur’s killing was CoIntelPro’s final operation, in his
1997 PBS Frontline interview
with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, despite ample evidence it was probably an enraged gang member, but on other subjects he had changed remarkably and not just his turn towards Republicanism.
When discussing his May ’68 shoot out with Oakland cops, two days after the murder of MLK, when Hutton was killed, he remarks offhandedly, “We started the fight… a few blocks away from where Huey Newton had killed that cop(!)” before launching into a long recollection about his arresting officer, Lieutenant Hilliard (no relation to David), who visited him in jail, where he was facing a long list of charges after returning from exile in 1975.
“’Eldridge, remember that night? Remember when you came out of the building and you looked up and there was a police officer in the window?’” Cleaver recalls Hilliard saying. “’I was going to blow your head off because three officers had gotten wounded. All that shooting had everybody on edge.’”
“[Hilliard told me] ‘the reason that they have not been rushing you to court is because of my testimony and the testimony of 13 other police officers who were there that night who do not agree with what the police did… they murdered Bobby [Hutton]... [I]f you are going to court, I am going to testify against you because what you did was wrong. But I'm also going to testify against them because what they did was worse!”
Of all the Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, here speaking to college students in 1968, covered the most ground: from prison to revered writer, head of the international Panthers, Christian, clothing designer and Republican. photo: courtesy the Panthers
“[A]fter I ran into the Egyptian police and the Algerian police and the North Korean police and the Nigerian police and Idi Amin's police in Uganda, I began to miss the Oakland police,” Cleaver reminisces. “The last time I saw them suckers, I was shooting at them; and they were shooting at me. But… we do have some laws; we do have some principles that to a certain degree restrain our police.”
“I had a chance to witness Marxism up close in action, in my travels,” he added. “I saw that it wasn't working. I saw that the dictatorship of the proletarian was the last thing I wanted to have. That's when I began to see that with all of our problems in the United States, we had the best form of government in the world. We had the freest and most democratic procedure.”
And Cleaver, who passed in 1998, was not alone in his radical shift. Panther enforcer Forbes “would make perhaps the most dramatic turnaround of any party veteran,” writes Pearson in “The Shadow of the Panther”.
After he got out of Soledad prison in 1985, “he graduated from college and graduate school with honors… [and is now] a consultant to New York City neighborhood housing project and a successful film producer,” although the latter stretches the truth since ImDB, the media database, has only one Forbes listing: “American Gangster” (TV, 2011), as himself!
Nevertheless, “the healing workshop… held the most value for me,” Forbes opined, in an
article in NY’s Village Voice
, about the 2002 Panther DC gathering. “It should have been packed to capacity, but there were only two other Panthers besides myself present.”
“[T]his brother and sister mostly discussed the isolation and despair felt during their years in the BPP [‘s eastern chapters], a malaise still affecting them… [They had] many questions regarding the transformation of the party from one that placed an emphasis on armed self-defense to one that focused on community service programs.”
“Anyone can die nobly for a cause but the sign of maturity is to live day-by-day for that cause,” concludes Melvin Van Peebles in “Mixtape”. “The cause is not a racial cause, [although] it is here. Somewhere else it is a religious cause. It’s really simply freedom.”
Elbert "Big Man" Howard (rt) and other Panthers doing a disciplined demo with flags instead of guns, after Open Carry was repealed, which worked almost as well iconographically. photo: courtesy AP
To achieve that tricky quantum leap from adolescent to adult action and mature freedoms, which end at the start of your neighbor’s nose, serious art and analysis is needed, beyond that articulated in the Van Peebleses “Panther”, although they got many things right and one dead on: the group should go by Panthers to move beyond the limiting color descriptor.
Oakland has long since shifted from a predominantly black to a fully multicultural city, with its denizens sharing a certain absence of pretension, an acceptance of difference and the colorful chaos such tolerance entails—quite the opposite of their wealthy, micromanaging Bay Area neighbors. Dividing the team with petty accusations of racism and privilege instead of uniting it through forgiveness and shared aspirations does not seem like a continuation of the Panther platform, which ended with the word peace.
Aside from Nelson’s “Panthers” coming in September, there are a few documentaries in the works. Lise Pearlman, an Oakland lawyer who wrote “Sky’s the Limit: The People Vs Newton, the Real Trial of the Century” (2012), is currently trying to turn her book into a film.
In the narrative feature department, there is “Black Panther”, due out in 2018, but it is a Hollywood sci-fi flick utterly unrelated to the Panther story—apparently, the suits who vetoed Van Peebles’ “Sweetwater” are still hard at work.
In addition, there is “Seize the Time: The Eighth Defendant”, a feature currently in initial production by none other than Panther Chairman Bobby Seale. Although 80, he remains active with speaking engagements and fundraising; unable to meet, he told me of this development by email.
“Sieze the Time” will tell “the true history of the Black Panther Party,” according to Seale's
(there is no official Black Panthers site, although there is one for
), “giving those now and in the future an awareness of our history… [and i]nstilling and inspiring in them the hope that change is possible and that, we the people, must proactively work to preserve our constitutional rights.”
Abraham Lincoln, after noting that “our nation [was] conceived in liberty and the proposition that all men are created equal” at Gettysburg, stated that “the brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it,” ie "hallowed this ground." This phrasing suggests that all sides, North and South, Left and Right, even thugs and cops, contributed to the critical “testing whether that nation… so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Although the Panthers started as militant and macho, Elaine Brown became chairperson in 1974 and women were involved from early on, often spearheading projects. photo: courtesy the Panthers
Hence, Lincoln might agree with Cleaver, who said, in response to Gates’s query on how history will judge them, “I think they will give us Fs where we deserve them, and they'll give us As where we deserve them, and they're going to give Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver an A plus.”
Let’s hope that any new additions to the Panther filmography will be honest and insightful enough to help heal the trauma—give Fs where warranted—while also building on the Panthers' notable innovations and achievements to inspire a new generation of activists, thinkers and media makers to create what government programs generally can not: self-esteem, self-motivation and self-actualization.
The Actual Panther Filmography, Partial
• ”Black Panthers”, by Agnès Varda, famed Belgian director films Panthers and “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, doc, 31 min, 1968
• ”Black Panther”, producer Panthers and California Newsreel, self-promo, 14 min, 1969
Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther
”, by William Klein, doc, 73 min, 1970
A Conversation with Angela Davis
”, by Fred Joslyn, narr Rev. Cecil Williams, while she was in prison, 54 min, 1971
Death of a Black Panther: The Fred Hampton Story
”, by Howard Alk, who arrived at scene right after murders, doc, 27 min, 1971
• "Brothers" by Arthur Barron; starring Bernie Casey, Vonetta McGee, Ron O'Neal, about Angela Davis and her relationship with George Jackson, who was killed in 1971 prison escape, nar, 105 min, 1977
• “Eyes on the Prize”, PBS TV series, on entire civil rights movement with good Panther sections, doc, 360 min, 1987
• “The FBI's War on Black America” by Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis, declassified documents, interviews, rare footage, doc, 50 min, 1990
”, director Mario Van Peebles, writer Melvin Van Peebles, acting Marcus Chong, Anthony Griffith, Kadeem Hardison, Bokeem Woodbine, Courtney Vance, Nefertitti, Chris Rock, Dick Gregory and Kool Moe D, music Stanley Clarke, good dramatization of Panther trajectory, from founding and success to FBI attacks, nar, 124 min, 1995
All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond
”, by Lee Lew-Lee, good footage by a filmmaker who was there, doc, 115 min, 1996
Huey P. Newton: Prelude to Revolution
” by John Evans, interviews with Newton before 1968 trial, doc, 36 min, 1998
A Huey P. Newton Story
” by Spike Lee, written/performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, a tour-de-force one-man show delving deep into Newton's psyche, nar, 84 min, 2001
• “What We Want, What We Believe”, editor Roz Payne, produced by Black Panther Party Library, exhaustive compilation of shorts, newsreels and lots of extras, doc, 720 min, 2006
• “The Angola 3” or “Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation”, by Jimmy O'Halligan, narr Mumia Abu-Jamal, about three Panthers in Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola, doc, 109 min, 2008
• “Lords of the Revolution” TV episode, “VH1 Docs”, narr Richard Belzer, rare Panther footage in Chicago, NY and LA, including B. Seale, E. Douglas, E. Huggins, doc, 28 min, 2009
Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers
”, producer Peralta College, narrator Congresswoman Barbara Lee, on the Panther origins and featuring Bobby Seale, Richard Aoki, Ericka Huggins, David Hillard and presidents of Merritt College, doc, 72 min, 2009
″ explains CoIntelPro, how it was used against the Panthers and other groups, doc, 56 min, 2010
• “In The Land Of The Free” by Vadim Jean, narr Samuel L. Jackson, on the "Angola 3" Panthers, doc, 84 min, 2010
• “Night Catches Us”, director/writer Tanya Hamilton, actors Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, music The Roots, about ex-Panthers and a snitch in Philadelphia, nar, 95 min, 2010
Black Power Mixtape: 1967-75
”, by Goran Hugo Olsson, producer Danny Glover, fabulous archival footage and contemporary commentaries, doc, 92 min, 2011
• “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners”, by Shola Lynch, doc, 102 min, 2012
• “The Butler”, by Lee Daniels, about a real person who literally served six presidents at the White House but with a fictional Panther son, nar, 132 min, 2013
• “1971”, by Johanna Hamilton, about activist break-in to an FBI office and expose of illegal surveillance and intimidation, notably of Panthers, doc, 80 min, 2014
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
”, by Stanley Nelson, a tour de force, PBS-style doc covering almost everything except Newton’s degeneration, often in color, with close-up ex-Panther interviews, doc, 116 min, 2015
Emory Douglas: The Art of The Black Panthers
", produced/directed by Dress Code, about the BP's graphic designer, 8 min, 2015
• "Seize the Time: The Eighth Defendant ”, by Bobby Seale, about the founding of the BP and how they resisted FBI’s CoIntelPro, nar, TBA
• "Sky’s the Limit: The People Vs Newton, the Real Trial of the Century”, director/writer Lise Pearlman, doc, TBA
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on May 16, 2015 - 04:27 PM