Director: Mario Van Peebles.
Starring: Kadeem Hardison (Judge), Bokeem Woodbine (Tyrone), Joe Don Baker (Brimmer), Courtney B. Vance (Bobby Seale), Tyrin Turner (Cy), Marcus Chong (Huey Newton), Anthony Griffith (Eldridge Cleaver), Bobby Brown (Rose), Angela Bassett (Dr. Betty Shabazz), Nefertiti (Alma), James Russo (Rodgers), Jenifer Lewis (Rita), Chris Rock (Yuck Mouth), Roger Guenveur Smith (Pruitt), Michael Wincott (Tynan), Richard Dysart (J. Edgar Hoover), M. Emmet Walsh (Dorsett).
black panthers, radical black power movement
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. And there's the f word in here.
In the opening people are singing "We Shall Overcome." Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks. White racists taunt civil rights marchers. And Malcolm X says: "We are non-violent with people who are non-violent with us." The police indulge in a police riot on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy speaks out for civil rights. Malcolm X talks about resorting to any means necessary to bring about justice.
The narrator of the story is a young black man named Judge. He comments that many people ask him how it all got started. It started with two fed-up black men from Oakland, California named Bobby Seale and Huey Newton talking about the necessity for black people to defend themselves against racists, including racist cops.
Huey socks a police officer and both he and Bobby get arrested. The two fellows then form the Black Panther Party of Self-defense. Bobby Hutton joined and that got the ball rolling.
Oakland 1967. For me it started differently, says Judge. A young black boy rides his bike around Oakland. A speeding driver in an automobile hits and kills the boy at a busy intersection that has no traffic signal. Blacks start beating on the car that hit the boy. Judge comes out to see what happened. He says that his participation in the Black Panthers started in his momís front yard. Rev. Slocum had been trying to get a traffic light at the corner where three people had died this year.
Bobby Seale talks about police brutality.
The black community has a march led by Rev. Slocum. A lot of police cars arrive. The police get out of their cars and tell the marchers to disperse. One of the officers says that the march is some type of vigil for some "pickaninny" who got hit here at the intersection. The man in charge tells the marchers they have 30 seconds to disperse or they will be arrested. After awhile the police start moving on the people as they put their hands over their badge numbers so they can't be identified. Soon the police are beating the marchers. Judge hits and kicks a cop who is beating his mother with a baton. In turn Judge is knocked out by a police blow to the head. He wakes up in jail
Rev. Slocum says that the marchers must turn the other cheek, but others quote Malcolm X saying they should stop praying and start swinging. The Panthers say black people can carry guns; itís legal; and itís all about getting the manís attention, not shooting cops. A popular phrase used is: "All power to the people." The marchers in jail are released.
The Black Panthers start acting on their own. At the intersection where the boy was killed, they start directing traffic. Judgeís friend Cy joins the Black Panthers. Both Judge and his mother were locked up. Judge comes home and his mom looks at the bad cut on his head from the baton. Mom tells Judge that the Black Panthers are no good. They are all communists and atheists. She adds that thereís going to be a lot of trouble around here.
FBI Agent Rogders comes in to see Oakland police chief Dorsett. He says the bay area is a real hornetís nest of subversive activity and the FBI wants to help the local police departments defend against groups like the Black Panthers. The chief is not worried, saying theyíre loud but they're not dangerous. The FBI agent tells Dorsett to put a man on to watch the Panthers, but tell him to keep a low profile. A big man named Brimmer is chosen to watch the intersection where the trouble started. He sits in his car and takes notes on whatís going on.
Sabu is active at the dangerous intersection selling drugs. He gets hassled by the Panthers and he says that now the Panthers are worse than the police for his business. A couple of black guys come to Brimmer in his car and chase him away, at least for the moment.
Huey comes looking for Bobby Seales at a barbecue. Bobby is the main cook. Huey says a group calling themselves the Panthers is bringing in Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, to speak before their group. Huey wants their Black Panthers to help provide security for her. And to provide protection, they will need guns and this costs money. So they buy thousands of Maoís little red book for 30 cents and sell it for $1 dollar apiece. They sell a lot them in front of the UC at Berkeley gates. Judge sees his friend Cy selling Maoís book and stops to talk to him. Cy tries to recruit Judge, but Judge is reluctant to join. But Judge does go with Cy to hear Bobby Seale speak in a meeting in an abandoned store. He says they are not anarchists. They want things like black cops for black people. At present the cops constitute a virtual army of occupation. Another theme Bobby emphasizes is the need for blacks to patrol and control their own community.
Judge was in Vietnam, so the weapons buyers for the group use him to help them buy the weapons they will need. They get the weapons from an Asian gun dealer.
Ignorance and inertia are big problems facing the Panthers. They are able, however, to get a car and start patrolling the streets of Oakland. The Panthers wear black berets to let people know they are the Black Panthers. They come across two police officers really whacking a black man with their batons. The Panthers show up with guns in hand and scare the police officers away. When later the Panthers are challenged on the subject of their weapons, Huey says they have a constitutional right to bear arms. A large crowd starts gathering around the cops and the Panthers. The police try to chase the crowd away; but Huey says they donít have to leave as long as they are so many feet away from the officers.
The Panthers say to the police that if they try to brutalize blacks, they will shoot the offending police. The police step back to cool off the situation so events don't get out-of-hand. The crowd claps for the Black Panthers. Judge is in the crowd.
Police chief Dorsett reads over a Black Panther statement. The police say that the Panthers are really asking for reparations for blacks. The FBI agent says not enough pressure is being put on the Panthers. He speaks with Brimmer to tell him he is not taking the Panthers seriously. Brimmer will have to get enough information to move against the Panthers. Dorsett talks with a representative of organized crime in the Oakland area.
Judge finally comes around and starts working with the Panthers. Recruitment is up after the armed confrontation between the police and the Panthers.
In February of 1967 Dr. Betty Shabazz arrives in Oakland. She goes to the Ramparts magazine office. The two groups of Panthers provide security. The police show up, but they can't do much since they see the security group has weapons. The police talk big, but they know they must avoid a showdown.
The Black Panthers learn that the weapons of the other Panthers were not even loaded. So Huey and other Black Panthers confront the other group and demand that they merge with the Black Panthers or change their name. Huey gets one of the main leaders in a headlock. To avoid a conflagration, a woman tells the leader in the headlock to tell the Black Panthers that they will change the name of their organization. The fellow gives in.
Huey speaks with Judge. He says Judge looks like a black fellow that the police would trust. So he wants Judge to be a double agent to check on the police and to feed them false information.
Alma comes to the Black Panthers saying that she wants to join the group. Along with her are a lot of other "sisters" who also want to become full-fledged members. Women are admitted in, but have their own group identity also. The Panthers start up a free food program to provide food for the members of the black community. They also go to the schools to speak to the school children about what they are doing for the community. With these kinds of efforts, the black community begins to solidify behind the radical group.
Brimmer approaches Judge and asks him to take a "walk and talk" with him. He wants Judge to be a spy for the police. Brimmer says they will even help pay for Judge's education. Judge cannot appear too eager so he indicates he wants to think about it.
April 1, 1967, Richmond, California. The police shoot down an honors student and then claim he was trying to steal a car. The Black Panthers go to the wake and the funeral. They talk to the grieving mother. They point out that the police lied in their report, which was no more than a big cover-up. An independent assessment showed that the dead boy had his hands up at the time he was shot.
Brimmer pretends to arrest Judge for show.
The police let the Black Panthers in, without their weapons, to talk with the police about the pattern of police brutality in Oakland. The police chief says there has been no police misconduct. He soon tiers of the Panthers and tells them to get the hell out of his office.
Brimmer says that he wants to hear from Judge real soon. He says in the end the Panthers are going to lose any way. He asks Judge: "Are you gong to lose along with them?"
The Panthers have a rally in a public park with barbecue and music. Eldrigde Cleaver is there. He is a reporter for Ramparts.
Sacramento, California. Governor Reagan speaks with a group of white people near the state capitol building. He witnessed the Black Panthers marching on the capitol building. They are headed to the assembly there. The group marches right into the capitol building and go right into the assembly. The mostly white assemblymen start hiding under their desks. Reagan and the whites are furious with the Panthers. Reagan says the Black Panthers are just a militant fringe group using intimidation as their weapon. Bobby Seale is prosecuted for this little stunt and goes to jail for six months. (This is why they had Huey stay out of it. They didn't want both leaders in jail at the same time.) The Sacramento stunt got world wide attention for the Black Panthers.
Washington, D.C. Head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover is furious with the Black Panthers. He complains about outside agitation and calls them black terrorists, masterminded by the communists. He refers to the Panthers as a bunch of "ungrateful coons". He orders a crack down on the Panthers.
Brimmer is furious with Judge. He asks Judge why didnít he tell him about this move by the Panthers on the assembly. Judge says it was a spontaneous protest that was not planned way ahead of time. Brimmer stops on a bridge and holds Judge over the side to scare him enough to know that Brimmer means business; that he can hurt Judge if he wants to.
Shabu is still selling his drugs in Oakland. Cy punches the drug dealer a couple of times in the stomach and threatens him. The police, however, come over to tell Shabu to stand up for himself, "if you know what I mean".
A Black Panther named Tyrone gets suspicious of Judge and thinks he may well be a police informant. The new Minister of Information for the Black Panthers is Eldridge Cleaver. He gives a little speech and has the crowd shout out: "Fuck Ron Reagan!" Tyrone tries to get a private audience with Huey to tell him about Judge, but Huey is busy with Eldridge. Judge learns that his best friend Cy has been shot. It is believed that Shabu was the shooter.
With the police, Judge sets up a robbery of a gas station in order to give the cops something. He drives around Oakland with other Panthers and tells them to stop at a gas station because he has to take a leak. Judge goes into the gas station office and robs the gas station owner of his money. Soon afterward the police descend on the guys in the van, saying that they robbed the gas station. Judge manages to get out a rear entrance and get away.
Now the police chief goes on the television to say to everyone that the Black Panthers are no more than common criminals robbing a local business to get funds for their illegal activities. The police are happy about this until they bring in the robbed gas station attendant. It turns out that the man is blind and he can't identify anyone. The police have no case. The Panthers in jail, all with very bruised faces, are released. The police chief tells Brimmer he should retire because of this debacle.
A wino who knows Judge tells him that Sabu killed Cy. Judge wants revenge.
A photographer takes a picture of Huey Newton sitting in an African chair and holding an African spear. The Black Panther newspaper is doing well. It has a circulation of 125,000.
October 20, 1967. Army Induction Center in Oakland. Around 10,000 protestors against the Vietnam War come out to listen to radical speakers. Meanwhile, Brimmer is searching for Judge. Brimmer spots him and chases him in his car. He catches Judge and beats him up badly by hitting him repeatedly in the face and stomach. After that Brimmer goes to police headquarters. The Feds are now taking over the whole operation against the Panthers. A very light-skinned black agent named Pruitt tells the local police that the Black Panthers have united with other organizations to undermine support for the Vietnam War and they are not going to tolerate this. Pruitt says the Panthers have sealed their fate. They will become extinct because Hoover has declared the Black Panthers the country's enemy number One.
The police start a determined campaign to fight the Panthers. They bomb Panther offices and/or raid Panther offices around the country. They also harass the Panthers constantly. There are quite a few shoot-outs between the police and the Panthers.
October 28, 1967. Huey Lewis and another Panther in their car are stopped by the police on a rainy night for no reason but harassment.. One of the police officers uses racial slurs in dealing with Huey. When he pulls out his weapon, Huey starts struggling with the officer. All hell breaks out now. It looks like the officer is shot by another officer trying to help his comrade. Huey picks up the pistol on the street and starts shooting in answer to the other policeman trying to kill him. Huey is also hit in the shoot-out.
Huey goes to the hospital. In the emergency room the police assault Huey as he lays on the hospital gurney. They have to stop as a crowd starts coming in to see what the heck is going on. Huey survives and is imprisoned, but Bobby Seale is released from prison. He sees Huey in a cell with his face all messed up from the police beating. Now starts a relatively successful PR campaign to get Huey out of prison. Buttons are given out that say: "Free Huey!" Judge says that despite the police crack down, the Panther's power base continued to grow in the black community.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated by being shot in the face at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He died in the hospital an hour later. Judge is very upset about the death of King even if he is a Black Panther. Riots break out around the country in places like Houston, Texas; Washington DC; New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Little Rock, Arkansas.
Black Panther enrollment doubles quickly. Eldridge Clever says we must retaliate; he says itís time to intensify the struggle. Huey and Bobby are opposed to Clever's wishes. They believe they must stop the man.
April 6, 1968, Oakland. Clever sets up a police ambush. He and others hide in waiting. Clever tell his group that the pigs will be here any minute now. The first two officers to arrive at the scene are gunned down. But more and more police cars arrive. The Panthers shoot some more cops, but then they have to make a run for it as the shoot-out continues. A number of Panthers are wounded. A couple of them are caught in the crawl space of a house. The police start making Swiss-cheese out of the house. Then tear gas is shot into the crawl space. One of the trapped Panthers is Bobby Hutton. The other fellow pulls all his clothes off and comes out naked, while Bobby just comes out. He is shot many, many times by the police. Eldridge is going to disappear, says Bobby Seale
The FBI's ultimate contingency plan is now activated in Oakland. It will serve as nation wide model for the fight against the Black Panthers. The Police and the FBI go to organized crime. They want the criminals to spread heroin throughout the ghetto. Heroin will flow freely in the ghetto. The FBI says it must stay within the ghetto. Dorsett doesnít like the idea at all.
There is a demonstration at the Alameda County Courthouse to free Huey. They say that Huey is a prisoner-of-war, that the US has declared war on black people. The talk is that they must get Huey out by any means necessary
A trial is held for Huey. The defense brings out a surprise witness. Gene McKeney was the passenger in Huey Newtonís car the night of the shooting. The defense lawyer asks Gene if Huey started the shooting. Gene says: "No, sir, he did not." The lawyer then asks if someone else started the shooting. Gene refuses to answer the question on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate him. Other questions are asked and Gene just keeps repeating the same refrain. This little slight of hand gets Huey off and McKenny can't be prosecuted.
Brimmer brings Judge to the bridge again. Judge is afraid of what the man might do to him, but Brimmer only tells him that the FBI and the police are going to flood the ghetto with cheap dope. He also tells Judge: "The Panthers are dead. They killed you, you just donít know it."
Sabu is still on the streets, but this time even stronger. One of Judge's buddies tells him about it. Judge in turn tells Huey about it. The FBI are out to neutralize us, he says.
Pruitt says they got Bobby Seale. He's up in Chicago on a conspiracy charge. Sabu kills Judge's informant and the guyís dog. Tyrone say he is going to kill Judge for being a spy. He threatens Judge and the two start fighting. They are interrupted by the police who start a shoot up of the Oakland Panther headquarters. Judge starts winning the struggle with Tyrone, but Alma grabs a pistol and tells Judge to drop his weapon. Judge talks his way out of trouble. They will check out his story about the authorities flooding the ghetto with drugs.
Tyrone checks out the story and finds that it is true. Now the three work together. They sneak into the drug warehouse and have a shoot out with Sabu and his criminals. A big fellow named Shorty is hit and killed. The FBI see the shoot-out and call for police backup. Sabu is wounded in the ear. He drops his weapon. There is a confrontation between Sabu and Judge. Sabu reaches for a pistol on one of the shelves and Judge shoots him dead. Tyrone is hit a number of times and is very weakened. The police arrive. Tyrone tells his two comrades to leave,. He will distract the "pigs" by setting the warehouse on fire. The other two go near the rear exit. Tyrone starts the fire with the help of gasoline. Tyrone then commits suicide by police by running out of the warehouse while firing at the police. He is gunned down.
Judge says they finally got their traffic light at that dangerous intersection in their neighborhood. Drugs did overflow from the ghetto into the white communities. He says in 1970 there were some 300,000 drug addicts, but now there are over three million. The Black Panther Party continued working. They found proof that Hoover and the FBI were using illegal tactics to destroy the Panthers. Huey was killed in 1989. Bobby Seale teaches and lectures in Pennsylvania.
Good movie. Lots of action. After King's philosophy was rejected by many black youths and others after years of struggle, the philosophy of people like Malcolm X took over -- a philosophy that advocated violence as a weapon in the struggle for justice. The Panthers are praised in the movie and the police and FBI condemned. Yes, the Panthers may have been brave and did cause the police a lot of problems, but the real message of the film is it showing how violence does begets violence. The government is the party that turned to the policy of victory by any means necessary. They used all kinds of tactics, legal and illegal, to destroy the Black Panthers, and they succeeded. It proves the validity of the King approach and the futility of the Malcolm X approach.
Melvin Van Peebles is full of bravado in praise of the Panthers, but they were more of a distraction than anything else. A people with only 12% of the population cannot hope to succeed using a violent approach toward the 88% of the population. If there is another civil rights movement, let's hope we don't see a return of the Black Panthers in a big way.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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