The Panthers: heroes or villains?

A new film about the notorious Black Panthers has caused a bitter row in America. Critics say the truth has been bent and the result is a whitewash. David Gritten tries to sort fact from fiction

David Gritten
Sunday 04 June 1995 00:02

GIVEN THE recent string of American movies with contentious real-life themes and the power to polarise opinion, it was inevitable that someone would get round to making a film about the Black Panthers. Like Malcolm X, Hoffa and JFK, all the elements were in place: a dramatic slab of American history torn from newspaper headlines; a narrative revolving round events which changed the times; and yes, even a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory. The biggest surprise about Panther, which opened in America last month, is that Oliver Stone, Hollywood's master forger of historical con- troversy, was not first to the idea himself.

Panther has, in fact, been made by a family firm - the black American actor, film-maker, musician and songwriter Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote the script from his own novel, and his son Mario, who directed it. Melvin Van Peebles was an early supporter of the Black Panthers and identified with their fight to win political power for black Americans. He gave benefit concerts for them; in 1971, on the release of his third film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (about a black street hustler turned revolutionary), Huey P Newton, one of the Panthers' most notorious leaders, thought the film's story fitted so neatly with his own ideas that he devoted a whole issue of the Panthers' newspaper to it and declared it mandatory viewing for members.

By then the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence was five years old and entrenched in the American consciousness. The Panthers had first emerged in 1966 in Oakland, California as a group dedicated to protecting the black community from the bullying, murderous tactics of the racist local police. The Panthers wanted local (ie black) control of services like education and the police. They supported the use of guns, whether for self-defence or for retaliation, against anyone seen to be oppressing them. In time they dropped the "self-defence" tag and grew into a Marxist group favouring violent revolution to change American society.

Many angry young blacks viewed them as role models; to most whites the Panthers were simply scary. For the first time, black men were seen patrolling streets, openly toting guns. They looked formidable in their all-black uniforms - leather jackets, shades and Che Guevara berets.

Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver soon emerged as leading figures, but the Panthers always opposed the idea of a messianic leader, one who might be assassinated just as the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X had been in 1965. The Panthers' original 10-point programme called for decent housing and full employment for blacks, but also advocated that all blacks should be freed from jails and exempted from military service.

From these local beginnings in California, the Panthers became a national force, boasting 20,000 members from campuses and under-privileged inner- city communities in 42 chapters across America by 1970. They certainly had the power to frighten; in 1968 FBI boss J Edgar Hoover called them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country". But in reality the Panthers were an odd mixture of good-guy and thug. In their heyday, roughly from 1966 to 1971, they started free breakfast schemes for children in black neighbourhoods and opened free schools and health clinics, while simul-taneously terrorising American cities in armed shoot- outs with police.

The Panthers' every move made headlines. Early on they raised money by selling copies of Chairman Mao's Quotations to white kids on campus at Berkeley. In 1967, 30 armed Panthers stormed California's state capitol at Sacramento, angry at a bill banning the display of loaded weapons; this was interfering with their right to carry arms. Later that year Newton was involved in an altercation in which an Oakland police officer was shot dead; a grand jury indicted him for first-degree murder, triggering nationwide Free Huey rallies. He was eventually convicted of manslaughter and served two years in jail. In 1969 police shot Fred Hampton - 21-year-old leader of the Panthers' Chicago chapter - dead in a raid on his house as he slept. Newton fled to Cuba for three years.

Middle America was, by turns, gripped and appalled by all this frenzied activity. Yet what were the consequences? Unlike Malcolm X, and unlike Martin Luther King's peaceful leadership of the civil rights movement, the Panthers have left behind a slender legacy - a point I put to Melvin Van Peebles.

"Yeah, well," he growls, "the Panthers were like a blip on the screen of Americana that's been written out of history." They have, he thinks, been dismissed by white historians: "Their story was suppressed initially, then overlooked later." America's white establishment, he says, believes that the Panthers were just vicious, trigger-happy criminals: "If they were just a few goons strutting around, how could they manage to grow into so many branches nationally? Something didn't fit."

Van Peebles Snr views the Panthers now as a movement whose time had simply come. He regards Newton, a college student, as a political theorist, but Bobby Seale, six years his senior, a part-time student who had worked on the Gemini missile project, as just "an ordinary guy in the right place at an extraordinary time".

The Van Peebles' film makes few concessions to mainstream - ie white - taste. The Panthers are painted throughout as idealists righting wrongs. "We wanted to concentrate on the message, not the messengers," says Mario. "But I know some reviews will be hoping we concentrate on the Panthers' dirty laundry."

And there would be plenty to concentrate on. Even allowing for police brutality and prejudice, there is massive evidence that many Panthers were involved in drugs and violent crime; they were certainly no angels. But Panther overlooks all this. The film's central claim is that party members were all oppressed, harrassed, righteous individuals, driven to political extremes because they had no choice. Nearly all its black characters (save for an FBI informant or two) are portrayed, as one would say, positively. All its white characters (the cops especially) are racist, bullying and confrontational. Shades of grey are entirely absent, a fact which has left the Van Peebles vulnerable to charges of re-writing history.

The mainstream reaction has been predictably hostile. Time magazine led the assault: "It's all so lurid, it must be true. And if it's not, it can still be a movie." The review concluded: "In offering the Panthers as idealists and objects of veneration to today's youth, the movie surely stands guilty of criminal naivety. What's the politically correct term for whitewash?"

It's not only critics who oppose Panther. David Horovitz, who runs a Los Angeles right-wing pressure group, the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture, bought space in Variety to attack the film as "a two-hour lie". Horovitz, a left-wing magazine editor in the 1970s who says he worked with the Panthers, now calls them "extremists'' and ''cocaine-addicted gangsters'' who ''committed hundreds of felonies".

Its tendency to lionize its protagonists places Panther in the tradition of Malcolm X and Hoffa, two other films which portrayed their subjects primarily as heroes. Yet Panther makes no claim to be rigorously factual; its central character is a fictional Everyman figure called Judge, an ordinary guy from Oakland who is gradually drawn into the movement and radicalised. Melvin Van Peebles says he believes ''people of goodwill can go with him". He also deliberately veered away from focusing on Seale or Newton: "I wanted people to look at the forest, not the tree.

"You have to remember this is based on my novel. But I didn't just make it all up." Yet isn't he on thin ice? If it's a novel, why should his critics not assume that he had indeed made up vast swathes of the story? He replies: "By calling it fiction I hoped I could sidestep questions like 'Oh, and where in the FBI files did you establish this? Where's your corroboration?' ''

Clearly he miscalculated media reaction on this point. But the film's most remarkable claim is that in response to the militancy in America's cities, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover ordered black ghettoes to be flooded with cheap drugs to pacify their inhabitants. That decision, says the film, led to a tenfold increase in addiction.

"The Panthers had a lot of community support," says Van Peebles Snr. "It was their power base. Hoover, knowing he couldn't destroy the Panthers, decided to destroy the community itself. He had the people medicated."

This sounds an outlandishly paranoid alle-gation. Do you really believe this, I asked Melvin Van Peebles? Is there no question at all in your mind? Do you feel no need for corroborating evidence?

"No," he says simply. "It's like the 18 missing minutes in the Nixon tapes. I'm not saying Hoover personally went round and sowed weeds in the garden. I'm saying all you had to do was give the gardener a couple of days off and the weeds would grow. You follow?''

Evidence for the charge is scant. Certainly the FBI was mobilized to harass the Panthers, black FBI informants infiltrated their ranks and Hoover urged his men to neutralize the Panthers. A Hoover memo dated 4 March, 1968, outlines one specific goal: "Prevent the rise of a 'Messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement."

"Right," says Mario Van Peebles, as if this proved all the film's claims. "And who do we have 25 years after Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? A bunch of rappers."

Yet this is poor proof that the FBI systematically narcotised entire communities. The Van Peebles' case appears to rest on a 1974 conversation, reported to them, between Newton and Elaine Brown, who by this time was leader of the Panthers. She complained to Newton that drugs were rampant.

"There were white guys driving into Oakland in Rolls-Royces, and not dealing with the old gangster drug dealers, but going straight to the kids," said Mario. "What Elaine didn't know at the time was that this was happening nationally. It's not a new concept. You're British, right? Your people did the same thing in the Boxer rebellion. Gave the people opium."

Whether you can agree with all this or not, the two men put their case strongly - Melvin the sly old hipster, chewing pensively on a cigar, Mario as handsome as a movie star, shooting dazzling smiles from beneath his dreadlocks.

You have to grant them this - Panther was made on their own terms and lacks the upbeat, uplifting tone with which Hollywood insists on coating films tackling controversial issues. Predictably, it has taken Panther years to get a go-ahead from a studio and Mario has a long, funny routine about their attempts to sweet-talk apprehensive Hollywood executives.

"We went to the studios five years ago," he recalls. "One studio said they'd be happy to do the Panther story, but it had to be told from a 'mainstream' perspective."

Elsewhere, this has led to the civil rights struggle seen through the eyes of FBI agents in Mississippi Burning, and to Steve Biko's life being told from the viewpoint of white newspaper editor Donald Woods in Cry Freedom. As Mario tells it, the studio executive wanted one of the lead Panthers to be white. No? Well, Jane Fonda had been a Panther supporter; how about asking Bridget Fonda to play her own aunt, tell the story from her perspective?

"We just put the script back on the shelf," says Mario. In time, after two profitable films, New Jack City and Posse, he became bankable. Polygram now asked what he wanted to do next: "I'd never been asked that question before."

Panther opened in the United States four weeks ago and is doing creditably at the box-office; at one point it was the No 5 movie. But what do the Panthers think of it? Newton is no longer around to ask; he was shot by an Oakland drug dealer in 1989. Seale, now 58, has no intention of seeing it and has called it "a bootleg fiction, nothing to do with real events".

But then Seale, who wrote a best-selling cookbook in 1988 and now runs barbecue restaurants, has a vested interest. He is under contract to Warner Bros, which is developing its own film about the Panthers, based on Seale's 1991 book Seize The Time. Seale has said he may sue the Van Peebles for portraying him without his permission.

A screening of the film was held in Oakland recently for ex-Panthers, now all middle-aged. Opinions varied wildly. Huey Newton's brother, Melvin, said nothing in Panther struck him as grossly inaccurate. Bobby Seale's ex-wife, Artie, called it "a gross misrepresentation" with dates and incidents wrong. Others thought it failed to show the degree of violence that surrounded the Panthers.

You'd expect members of an organisation so chaotic as the Panthers to argue among themselves even 25 years on. But the reporters at the screening noticed that one issue united them; the charge that the black population was deliberately narcotised. Yes, the ex-Panthers all agreed, that was accurate.

! 'Panther' will open in Britain in the autumn.

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