Movie Review: Panther (1995)
“The People Called Them Heroes. The F.B.I. Called Them Public Enemy Number One.”
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Cast: Kadeem Hardison, Bokeem Woodbine, Joe Don Baker
Synopsis: Charts the rise and fall of The Black Panthers in 1960s America.
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Panther begins like some light-hearted biopic, with a soundtrack of lively 60s music accompanying a young boy as he rides his bike on his way to school, pausing, as all good boys should, to watch the backdraft from a passing bus lift the skirt of a comely young lady. The music eventually yields to the voice of an adult narrator who reminisces about how the seeds for the creation of the Black Panther movement were sown with that boy’s journey. You’d expect the voice to belong to the adult version of that small kid, but director Mario Van Peebles has wilfully misdirected us. The boy’s journey – and short life – end abruptly when he’s mown down by a car at a crossing, and the voice belongs to the young man who emerges from his mother’s modest home to witness his mangled body in the road. After watching Panthers, that piece of misdirection feels not unlike a signal of intent, a warning that the important aspects of the story are concealed or ‘re-imagined’ in order to coincide with the filmmaker’s agenda, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Bobby Seale, one of the founding fathers of the Black Panther movement, denounced the film upon its release.
Residents had been calling for traffic lights at the intersection where the boy lost his life for months, but their pleas had always fallen on deaf ears. When they gather one night to hold a peaceful march in the dead boy’s memory they are set upon by club-wielding cops who hide their badges to prevent observers from identifying them. Two of those observers are Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance) and Huey Newton (Marcus Chong – The Matrix), two friends who subsequently find their renewed attempts to co-ordinate the residents into a voice for change gaining traction in the aftermath of the beating. More than just a voice, though, the Black Panther movement becomes a quasi-military socio-political activist group intent on improving conditions for blacks in their neighbourhood. Initially dismissed by the authorities, the Black Panthers find their activities coming under ever closer scrutiny as their membership grows and they acquire firearms with which to defend themselves.
Interwoven with this broadly factual record of the growth of the movement is the wholly fictional story of Judge (Kadeem Hardison), the young man who witnessed the boy’s death at the beginning of the movie, and who has found a place in college thanks to the GI bill. Judge is also a friend of Seale and Newton, and so it’s perhaps inevitable that he is drawn into the movement, despite initial misgivings. Newton quickly comes to realise that Judge fits the profile of the type of black the FBI would be looking to serve as a government spy, and instructs Judge to go along with the cop (Joe Don Baker – Cool Hand Luke) who eventually approaches him. However, Newton’s insistence that nobody else in the organisation must know about Judge’s double agent act means that his safety is compromised when a fellow member begins to suspect he’s a snitch.
Van Peebles isn’t the only filmmaker ever to alter or embellish the facts to provide a one-sided version of events, but, to be fair to him, only Judge, the fictional character, comes across as a noble martyr in the face of blanket police brutality in Panther, and the way that the authorities are painted as interchangeable forces of evil leaves the director with little choice but to add some texture to the black characters simply to avoid the movie descending into a simplistic Good vs Evil parable (although that doesn’t mean that Peebles’ depiction of the police brutality isn’t accurate, of course). The thing is, when a film about a movie star or distant historical figure plays with the truth we’re easily able to dismiss our reservations about authenticity, but when a film about a landmark moment in the socio-political history of a country does the same, the power of a filmmaker – and their possible abuse of it – leaves us questioning the veracity of everything we see.
While there’s no doubting his sincerity or the commitment of his cast, Van Peebles struggles to assemble the component parts of the story into a coherent whole, particularly as he has so much ground to cover in little more than two hours. He really would have been better off filming the saga as a TV mini-series, which would have permitted important, but largely peripheral, characters enough screen time to make an impression, and to pay more attention to women’s role in the movement’s development. Despite this, Panthers makes an interesting contribution to a subject which has been curiously overlooked by TV and filmmakers.
(Reviewed 29th July 2016)
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