Symbolic victory, real defeat

It's showy. It's contentious. It's melodramatic. But Van Peebles' film is politically accomplished. By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
From the title sequence, which shows a glowing graphic of a big black cat, it looks as if Panther isn't going to be reclaiming a piece of black history so much as proposing a logo for a generation's T-shirts and baseball caps, a generation tired of wearing X. But as the film goes on, and despite a certain incoherence of style, it turns into a rather effective exercise in deriving political uplift from a movement that was stamped on by the authorities right from the start. No doubt Panther glamorises the motives and methods of some historical figures, but the same applies to any number of films, and there only seems to be a problem when it's a minority doing the glamorising.

The director, Mario Van Peebles, is a member of the Nineties generation of black film-makers - he made New Jack City - but the screenplay is by his father Melvin, who made an independent film in 1970 (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) so successful it more or less started the trend for what became "blaxploitation films". It was also praised for its revolutionary consciousness by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, founders of the Black Panthers.

If the City of Oakland had seen fit to install traffic lights at a particular dangerous crossroads (at 55th and Market), then there might have been no Black Panthers - at least not focused on that place, with that name and that leadership. The hero of Panther is a man called Judge (Kadeem Hardison) who lives by that junction, and after a child is run over there (not the first casualty) he joins what is at first just a campaign to make one crossing safer - by manning it personally, if necessary. (In an entertaining if anachronistic sequence, we see a white-gloved young man on the crossroads turning traffic control into a dance routine that anticipates Michael Jackson's moonwalking.)

The character of Judge, who is a Vietnam war veteran, is clearly there to provide a moderate perspective, and to the extent that Panther is interested in a white audience, he is designed not to scare that constituency off. But the use of this point of view is sophisticated. He has fought for his country and has a shrapnel wound to prove it, but he volunteered so as to dodge a joy-riding charge, so he's not quite Mr Perfect. And although Judge takes his time to join the Panthers, he acts as a weapons' adviser. So he is immediately involved with what was the single most alarming thing for whites about the Panthers, their bearing of arms (legal at that time under Californian law).

The police start leaning on the movement, but its leaders are knowledgeable about the law and keep inside it. So Huey Newton (Marcus Chong), realising that the authorities will try something more ambitious - infiltration - than the flat-footed surveillance they've been using to date, wants Judge to act as an informer, controlled by him. What he says is: "You fit the profile, brother. You're just the kind of nigger they think they can trust." The speech doesn't leap unnaturally out of the film, but it does rather disconcertingly describe the way the character of Judge functions for a white audience.

As the pressure mounts on him, Judge comes rather too close to genuine betrayal of his comrades, agreeing to set up an armed robbery for which they will be framed. It doesn't make things easier that Huey hasn't told anyone else about Judge's status as a double-agent, so that he is looked at by the rank and file with a suspicion just short of denunciation. In fact, by the time his Mum has come round to a radical political stance, bringing home-cooked food to Panther headquarters and shyly patting her new Afro, Judge's position is pretty much untenable. This strand of the film is highly accomplished: a character who makes things easier in some ways for uncommitted audiences - who may not even register the moment he abandons his patriotic fatigues for the Panther uniform of black beret, roll neck and leather jacket - is then used strategically to make them uncomfortable.

The screenplay can't quite stretch this device to cover the historical period it has chosen to address. Judge's story recedes for a while, and we follow rather less intently court cases, jailings, factions. There's a time when we don't even know where Judge is, until we see him apparently held prisoner by a local policeman, staring up at the ceiling fan and having what we recognise as a Vietnam war flashback or, in film terms, a mild case of Apocalypse Now montage.

The style of Panther includes archive footage, both real and simulated, thriller-like sequences of chase or shoot-out and scenes of dramatised documentary. The director goes in for occasional showy bits of editing, as when after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Judge stands against a mirror that reflects his image but not his room. Behind him there is fire and riot instead. Once Van Peebles even borrows a mannerism from Coppola's Tucker and cuts between scenes without cutting. The FBI orders a crackdown on the Panthers, and the camera moves to the back of the office. The door is broken down from the other side, and suddenly it's the Panthers' HQ.

Style doesn't hold the film together, nor, after a while, does the historical chronicle. At a relatively late moment, the film goes all out for melodrama, and foregrounds the fictional characters instead of the real ones. The FBI has decided to flood Oakland with cheap heroin. Judge and Tyrone (Bokeem Woodbine), the Panther who is most hostile to him, join forces to burn down the drug warehouse, accompanied by a female Panther who is obviously meant to be more than a token woman but doesn't quite manage it. The story ends with gunfire, redemption, unity against a common enemy, self-sacrifice and cries of "I love you all".

This ending doesn't do justice to the best bits of the film, which were both viewer-friendly and subtly undermining. But Panther is a respectable attempt at a difficult task, which Ken Loach recently tackled with Land and Freedom: how to make a film with some aspect of the politically inspirational about a group whose victories were symbolic, but whose defeats were real.

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