There are always two sides to every story. Stanley Nelson’s latest documentary explores the rise and fall of The Black Panthers during the civil rights movement; the tyranny they faced, the controversy they caused and the fires they equally stifled and started. This is, of course a film about hideous levels of racism that were so normalised in 1950s America. Yet Nelson does much more than just look at the ignorant, putrid treatment of black men, women and children during this period. He ventures into the complexities of the Black Panther movement. Undertaking studies of the individuals who founded and drove the rebellion, Nelson successfully created a complex map of personalities, egos and faces. What you’ll remember most clearly about The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution are the more intricate, subtle depictions of both the group’s finest attributes and underlying flaws. Misogyny and arrogance plagued the group who claimed to be all about equality and human rights meanwhile their free breakfasts for children programme goes unreported by the white media of the time who want to portray them as merely radical, violent thugs. All in all, Stanley Nelson demonstrates the same conviction and narrative control that he showed in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, nine years ago. The director approaches the topic of The Black Panthers with sincerity but a slight humour which was present in both his documentary and himself, during his Q and A after the film’s premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015.
As always, Nelson has clearly read vastly around his subject matter – proving that he’s the most deserving director for the job. Bringing together a vast number of interviewees and a staggering amount of archive footage and material, Nelson expertly slots together his findings all against the energetic backdrop of a soulful and timely soundtrack. Not only does the film include interviews with ex-panthers and members of the group but he also chooses to interview ex-cops who provide the story from the other side of the law. Men responsible for violence towards men of a different colour are unexpected but crucial components that Nelson has added to make this a deeply fair and well-researched documentary. This is the type of just and detailed analysis that makes good documentaries great. The film’s most enjoyable qualities lie in its service to the female panthers. Where some saw only black and white faces, other saw only men and housewives. Doing justice to the ex-panther women, Nelson shines a light on the determination of both genders to fight the fight and the pivotal role played by the women behind the egos. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a powerful story about race, control and rebellion but it is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance, delusion and self-importance.
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