Panther

By David Sturm, Copyright 1996


"Panther" is the latest entry in that burgeoning new movie genre, Tarted-Up Sixties History.

Oliver Stone is to this genre what John Ford was to westerns, but "Panther" happens to be a product of the Van Peebles movie family. Melvin directed and scripted and Mario plays Huey Newton.

Ostensibly the story of the early years of the Black Panther Party, the film opens with a long, legal-looking disclaimer that says it is "Not an accurate representation of historical facts."

By the time the movie winds up with a Panthers-vs.-gangsters shootout in a flaming warehouse full of Mafia heroin, that disclaimer seems like quite an understatement.

Too bad. Even when it hews close to the facts, "Panther" is a rousing, foot-stomping good time about the struggle of a revolutionary people's movement against the capitalist racist pig oppressor doodah ramalama dingdong.

Covering roughly the years 1967-69, the movie opens on the streets of Oakland with a neighborhood beef over a dangerous intersection.

Two buddies, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, decide to get the community organized and rally for a traffic signal. The cops show up at the rally and beat everybody up. Before you can say "Franz Fanon," the Panthers are buying guns.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense is seen as it grew step by step from neighborhood agitation to armed struggle. Media pictures of leather-coated, shotgun-wielding, Mao-quoting Panthers scared the daylights out of white middle America.

(As someone who saw the Panthers speak at anti-war rallies at the University of Maryland, I can testify that they had an electrifying presence.)

The movie takes the trouble to get certain details right, like Ramparts magazine and Che posters. One of the movie's amusing touches is the way it contrasts working class Oakland blacks in their Italian knit shirts and stingy-brim hats with hoity-toity San Francisco blacks in dashikis and sandals.

A lot is left out, and the movie ends before the Panthers devolved into gangsterism. We never see the notorious murder of Panther Fred Hampton by the cops. We never see Bobby Seale tied to a chair and gagged in the Chicago Eight trial. We never seen Eldridge Cleaver consorting with Timothy Leary while self-exiled in Africa. We never see the Panther who hijacked a plane to Cuba. We see very little of the feverish machinations of the FBI's Cointelpro campaign.

For that matter, we also never see Cleaver's return to the U.S. as a designer of men's pants or Seale's emergence as Philadelphia's noted soul food maven (a movie in-joke has Seale at a Panther picnic calling out, "Save me some of that barbecue!"). There's also the untold story of what happened to the Panther women.

But now we're talking mini-series.


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