Thursday, October 22, 2015

Black Panthers: Vanguard... (movie review)

I finally got to this, having naively shown up on opening night thinking I could just waltz in and buy a ticket.  That was a gala event, for which I had not planned in advance.  No matter, Hollywood Theater, a nonprofit with members, let this important new documentary run for quite a few days.

I found it helpful to tightly focus on the Panthers through this period, but was always aware, since I was alive through some of this, of how much else was going on in parallel.  How Black Panthers related to Black Muslims and Malcolm X is discussed even less than their relationship with Black Christians and Martin Luther King.  The Panthers were more secular, less likely to invoke God in their speeches.  They simply wanted higher living standards and freedom from oppression.

With mass movements like this, mob psychologies, the so-called leaders act as tone and trend setters, but then the real inertia comes from the rank and file, people looking to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Not much vetting goes on sometimes as players are thrown together by circumstance.

This out-of-control snowballing effect was evident in the case of the Panthers but also in the case of law enforcement.  J. Edgar Hoover helped set the tone with Cointelpro, but it was up to individual police departments to "get creative".  Effectively micromanaging from the top, with this much going on concurrently, is somewhat impossible.  Would be public figures ride the wave, and use the media to help them do so, as another category of celebrity.

The former Panthers, police, journalists and historians, interviewed for this film have the benefit of a lot of hindsight.  If people had only had the luxury of being this reflective at the time... if only. Quakers intersperse a lot of silence for a purpose.  People need that time to reflect and to hear one another's voices in a safe environment.  They also need ways to debate and challenge one another without resorting to physical violence.  William F. Buckley, to his credit, worked at providing such a forum, an alternative to violence.

Speaking of Buckley, the segment on the park in Chicago segues smoothly to the famous Buckley-Vidal altercation.  Eldridge Cleaver delivered the speech in that park, and had left the scene before violence erupted, however he was charged with inciting said violence.  He decided he'd be better off in Algeria, where he started an international chapter of the Black Panther movement.

The commitment to Free Huey (Newton) from prison was a big part of Panther psychology and when he was finally let free, he was an icon.  However all that prison time had shaped him in ways that distanced him from his fans.  The party tried to consolidate around Bobby Seale, who ran for mayor of Oakland, and when that didn't work, things fell apart.  Huey had become abusive and tyrannical.

One could say the Panthers lost in their bid for a revolution, however big wheels turn slowly.  Nixon, the law and order president, turned out to be a crook (in addition to the usual war criminal, what most warlords are) and to this day the right to openly carry guns on public property (not private necessarily) owes a lot to the Black Panthers.

Their work in Chicago to build bridges with poor whites, so-called hillbillies from Appalachia, has paid off in some dimensions.  And backwater Oregon, where being black is no longer illegal, now has peaceful ties with Hanoi.  Today we have the Internet, and infiltration was always a two way street.

Watching this documentary in tandem with a few others, such as Neverland, the one about Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, would help open more windows on a complex timeline.  Historians are still putting together these vistas.  The US Versus John Lennon would be another good one to watch in close proximity.  No one documentary gets the whole picture of course.  History is non-simultaneously conceptual, meaning there's no single snapshot synopsis (obviously).

Today was much higher in pain and stress than anyone had planned, mostly for Carol, my mom (age 86).  She managed to gouge her leg quite deeply getting out of the car, fortunately at a hospital.  What was supposed to be a routine thirty minute checkup turned into a visit to the ER for sutures and a tetanus shot (as well as for the blood test she'd originally come in for).  I'm required to report this event to my car insurance company or risk Medicare not covering any of the costs, according to the hospital.  Mom is OK.  We're still planning that trip to Corvallis tomorrow.  Followup from Corvallis:  Farmers says they'll cover it.