With assist from Beyonce, Panthers are back in black

1200 black panthers on PBS
PBS is airing "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution."

"OK ladies now let's get in formation . . . "

And with that, Beyonce's controversial performance at Super Bowl 50 outside San Francisco was underway as she and her backup dancers marched onto the field at halftime in black leather jackets and ankle boots. The dancers had black berets pulled down over billowy afros, a signature look of the Black Panthers, as they, well, stood in formation.

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on the other side of the country in New York City wrapping up after a sold-out screening of his powerful, new film, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." Call after call came in from friends, alerting him to the Panther-esque vibe on display on the field.

"The timing couldn't be better, from my point of view. You know, I think that the Panthers are in the air, in more ways than one," Nelson told me by phone. "When I started making the film (eight years ago), I thought I was making a historical documentary. And little did I know that it would become so relevant with Black Lives Matter and such visible killing of black people by police. Beyonce just took it to a new height with what she did at the Super Bowl."

"My joke is that I called her up and said, 'Hey Bey could you do something for me. . ..' " he added. "Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of juice."

Juice or not, Bey's embrace of the iconic group created by 1960s-era young black college students upset about police harassment among other things helped push it to the forefront of the national zeitgeist just in time for the PBS airing of Nelson's two-hour documentary on the Black Panthers on Tuesday at 9 p.m.

I watched recently and was riveted.

Growing up, I had only a vague idea of who the Black Panthers - originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense - were and what they were about - besides being advocates for increasing black power and self reliance among Negroes, as we called ourselves back then.

A group of black militants who brandished guns and shouted about "power to the people" wasn't the kind of thing teachers at the Catholic schools I attended talked about much. Even though I'd heard the chants of "Free Huey Newton" and probably uttered them a few times myself, back then I had only a vague idea who the iconic Panther cofounder was and why he had been jailed.

So for me, watching the film was catch-up time.

It begins with news clips of police setting high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans juxtaposed with images from the late TV host Don Cornelius of Soul Train and other scenes from that era. On-screen, various former members share their memories of the party that had its genesis in the frustrations of African Americans tired of being harassed by the police.

It's heart-wrenching stuff such as the 1969 police killing of the young, brilliant head of the Chicago branch, Fred Hampton, who famously said, "You can kill a revolutionary but you can't kill a revolution." Hearing the rhetoric and seeing all the young impassioned faces, was reminiscent of today's Black Lives Matter movement. The issues the Panthers were agitating for during the 1960s remain issues now - such as the need for better schools, housing and policing.

Nelson includes interviews with six former police officers from the era, an FBI agent, and two government-sponsored informants, along with all of the interviews of the former Panther members.

A lot is made in the documentary of the Black Panthers' free breakfast programs for schoolchildren and free community clinics, and I couldn't help but get a sense that some of the more troubling aspects of the group weren't dealt with in as much detail as I'd expected.

But then, it was only a two-hour film.

"The Panthers have been both demonized and mythologized," Nelson pointed out. "I think what the film does is put them in a clear light and show the nuances of what was going on. It's not that simple. It's very nuanced."

In other words, it wasn't this either/or group. Jakobi Williams, author of From the Bullet to the Ballot Box: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, whom I also interviewed for this column pointed out, "The Black Panthers from its inception until its demise, were never this black separatist, antiwhite organization. Their ideology was 'organize your own.' "

To do this day, that's something that's still often misunderstood.

armstrj@phillynews.com

215-854-2223 @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen